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Company Unveils DNA Sequencing Device Meant to Be Portable, Disposable and Cheap

by Andrew PollackNew York Times
February 18th, 2012

Oxford Nanopore's MinION device.

DNA sequencing is becoming both faster and cheaper. Now, it is also becoming tinier.

A British company said on Friday that by the end of the year it would begin selling a disposable gene sequencing device that is the size of a USB memory stick and plugs into a laptop computer to deliver its results.

The device, expected to cost less than $900, could allow small sequencing jobs to be done by researchers who cannot afford the $50,000 to $750,000 needed to buy a sequencing machine.

It might also help doctors to sequence genes at a patient’s bedside, wildlife biologists to study genes in the field, or food inspectors to identify pathogens.

“You don’t need to buy instruments,” Clive G. Brown, the chief technology officer of the company, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, said in an interview. “It’s pay-as-you-go sequencing.”

Oxford presented details of the device, as well as of a new, somewhat larger sequencer that it also plans to begin selling late this year, at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference in Marco Island, Fla., which has become the sequencing industry’s annual boast-fest.

Both the tiny MinIon and the larger GridIon look likely to be the first sequencers to use nanopore sequencing, in which a strand of DNA is read as it is pulled through a microscopic hole, sort of like a noodle being slurped through rounded lips.

Outsiders have not tried the machines, and there can be a big difference between rosy specifications and how well a machine works when it finally reaches the market. Some other sequencers that initially dazzled the field have faltered in the marketplace.

Still, many experts at the conference were dazzled anew.

“If it does work, it will be a game-changer,” said Elaine Mardis, co-director of The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. Chad Nusbaum of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., called it “impressive, credible, possibly amazing.”

Isaac Ro, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said in a note Friday that the Oxford technology had “impressive performance specs” that suggested it would be a “significant competitor” to Illumina and Life Technologies, the leaders in the sequencing business.

Illumina has a bit of a hedge. In 2009, it invested $18 million in Oxford Nanopore, and owns a 15 percent share. But Illumina does not have the marketing rights to the machines unveiled Friday. Rather, it has the rights to an alternative Oxford technology that is further back in development.

Illumina shares fell nearly 4 percent Friday to $51.82, while Life shares dropped nearly 8 percent to $45.92.

Sequencing involves determining the order of the chemical units of DNA, which are known as bases and are usually represented by the letters A, C, G and T. The order of these bases helps determine inherited traits, like susceptibility to some diseases.

As the cost plummets, sequencing is moving from research laboratories into patient care. Some cancer centers, for instance, sequence genes to determine the best drugs to use.

The growing importance of sequencing in medical care is what motivated Roche to make its current $5.7 billion hostile bid to acquire Illumina. Known mostly for pharmaceuticals, Roche also has a large diagnostics business.

Nanopore sequencing is easy to envision but has been deceptively difficult to carry out, despite two decades of research by universities and companies.

Oxford, which is privately held and based on technology developed by a professor at Oxford University, uses pores made from bacterial proteins. An electric current flows through the pore. The bases interrupt the current in different ways as they go through.

The initial GridIon machines will have 2,000 pores. A machine due in 2013 will have 8,000 pores.

One big advantage of the nanopore sequencing, Dr. Mardis of Washington University said, is that preparing the sample is quick and easy. The technology also offers the promise of being able to read tens of thousands of bases in a stretch. Most sequencers read from around 30 to a few thousand bases at a stretch, and these small fragments then have to be pieced together.

A drawback is that the Oxford machine has a 4 percent error rate, too high for many applications, including diagnosis.

The MinIon, while entailing no capital cost for a machine, can be used only once and will sequence up to one billion bases. That is a cost of up to $1,000 per billion bases.

A GridIon might cost around $30,000, Oxford executives said. The company said that if 20 of the second-generation GridIons were used together, a human genome could be sequenced in 15 minutes at a cost of around $1,500.

By then, however, rival machines might be able to do genomes for that cost or even less. Ion Torrent, a subsidiary of Life Technologies, last month announced it was developing a machine that could do a human genome in a day for $1,000.

“We’re not losing sleep,” Jonathan M. Rothberg, chief executive of Ion Torrent, said Friday. “But they definitely have the Twitter airwaves today.” 



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