Illumina Bets Again on Oxford Nanopore, Joins $28M Investment in Cheaper Gene Sequencing

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the sample through very small (one-nanometer wide) pores. The DNA passes through these nanopores, and instead of taking an image, the Oxford machine records the electrical charge that’s associated with each individual unit of DNA, like a signature.

There is a ton of sophisticated chemistry that goes into making this happen, which I don’t pretend to understand in great depth. But Sanghera insists that the technology has earned some serious validation in recent years. A 2008 paper in Nature Nanotechnology showed that this method of DNA sequencing was comparable to the existing standards. The end result is a digital readout of a full genome sequence that’s more precise than existing methods, Sanghera says.

“The current systems look like 1970s mainframes,” Sanghera says. “We think we can bring about a transformation that is a bit like the transformation to the PC.” He adds: “We don’t talk about the $1,000 genome, but we do see this platform providing a step-change.”

It certainly sounds amazing if the chemistry has really matured. But even if it has, there are still many vital business questions that these executives aren’t ready or willing to answer in public. Things like the speed and accuracy of their tool. Or the exact price of the tool, and the cost per genome. Or when it might be commercially available. “It’s all quite sensitive” at the moment, Sanghera says.

Still, these guys display plenty of confidence in what Oxford Nanopore has, and make it sound like it will be here sooner rather than later. When I asked Sanghera about how the new technique stacks up in light of Illumina’s recent announcement of the $10,000 genome, he called that a “nice incremental advance of their existing technology.” When I asked about Helicos, he said that company’s technology eliminates the need for PCR amplification of biological samples, but that it “only gets half way there” toward the goal of fast, cheap, accurate sequencing because it still requires fluorescent tags and sophisticated optical equipment.

The Oxford technology spun out of the University of Oxford in 2005, from the chemistry lab of professor Hagan Bayley. The concept of molecular sensing through nanopores represents two decades worth of research with collaborators at Harvard University, MIT, the University of Massachusetts, UC Santa Cruz, and Texas A&M University, the company says.

The newest round of cash will go toward continuing development of the Oxford Nanopore DNA sequencing tool, as well as starting early work on a protein analysis tool that’s built on the same technology platform, Sanghera says. Since proteins carry out the instructions from genes, and perform all the vital functions in the body, this is the next logical step for Oxford Nanopore, he says. Biologists now use mass spectrometer machines to identify specific proteins in a sample, but those tools suffer from laborious sample prep, subjective analysis, and high cost, he says.

The protein analysis tool is still in early development, but it should catch up quickly to the DNA sequencer, because the company can take advantage of some of its existing technology to make it happen, Sanghera says.

“We think we can really simplify the workflow with proteins just like we can for sequencing, and create a low capital cost instrument that allows direct reading of proteins,” Sanghera says.

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