Revolution in gene technology promised


23-05-2001

A machine that will transform the identification of genes is being developed by a new Cambridge company.

One sequencing machine will have the power and capacity of 20 Sanger Centres (the organisation at Hinxton, near Cambridge, at which much of the mapping of the human genome has been carried out).



Eventually, it will be able to map an individual human genome in a day.



Solexa, which has just opened laboratories at Little Chesterford, between Cambridge and Saffron Walden, is a Cambridge University spin-out that will change the way we live.



Solexa's technology, which involves sequencing huge numbers of molecules simultaneously, is the invention of founding scientists Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman, both faculty members in the university's chemical labs.



The company has intellectual property rights from the university in exchange for an equity stake.



To date, 2 million has been put into the company, largely from venture capital investors Abingworth; but the directors are now looking to raise a further 10 million.



Solexa's scientists -- there are 12 PhDs in the 16-man company -- are described by Sir Alec Broers, the university vice chancellor, as 'brilliant'.



Their technology will have numerous applications in disease gene discovery, bespoke designer drugs, and plant sciences, and, according to the company, 'offers previously unimaginable economy and throughput' in the business of sequencing.



Work will by no means be limited to the human genome, with important applications envisaged in agriculture.



But the possibility of a machine that can map individual human genomes so quickly -- it took years to map the first genome -- and at an affordable cost, has all sorts of ethical issues attached.



It will be a machine that can dictate our lifestyle, what we should eat, how we ought to live, and how we are likely to die -- all according to our gene make-up.



Dr Tim Rink, Solexa chairman, said sequencing would use blood samples. Covering the entire genome would not be happening on an individual basis for several years, although within two years it would be possible to sequence various pieces.



The company's income would derive from academic and commercial researchers using the machinery.



Nick McCooke, president and managing director and former head of Chiroscience in Seattle, said using current tools, the cost of working out the individual gene pattern of everyone in the UK would cost 2,000,000,000,000,000, a figure, he said, he could not even put into words.



The Solexa machine will slice off most of the noughts.



'When I meet people at parties and they ask me what I do, they often say 'I thought all of that had been done',' Mr McCooke said. 'But, to be a bit Churchillian, we are probably only at the end of the beginning.'

 

The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)