An inexpensive new gene-sequencing machine is due to hit the market next month, and its creators hope that it will make sequencing more common, ultimately giving a boost to personalized medicine. The machine is the brainchild of George Church, a genomics pioneer who developed the first direct sequencing technology as a graduate student in the 1980s and helped initiate the Human Genome Project soon after.
Church sees greater access to sequencing as a vital component in the drive toward personalized medicine, in which treatments and preventative medicine are tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup. The new machine, which was developed with an “open source” philosophy, was commercialized by Danaher Motion, based in Salem, NH, with the specific intent of keeping costs low. “It seems like the biomedical-instrument field in general tries not to commoditize,” says Church, who heads the Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School, in Boston. “It tries to keep profit margins high and slow the inevitable decrease in cost.” The Danaher device will cost roughly $150,000, a third to a tenth of the cost of systems currently on the market.
The technology will become an integral part of Church’s other brainchild, the Personal Genome Project, an effort to enable personalized medicine by providing a test bed for new genomics technologies and analytic tools. Church and his collaborators are using the new device to sequence the genomes of the project’s first 10 volunteers, who will share their genome sequences, medical records, and other personal information with both scientists and the public. Church hopes that, ultimately, thousands of people or more will have their genomes sequenced as part of the project, and that the result will be a huge compendium of data that is useful to both the volunteers themselves and to the research community. “Part of the goal of this project is as a bridge between the research market, which is small, and the consumer market,” says Church.
Church’s group has spent the past several years developing prototypes of the sequencing device–known as the Polonator–from off-the-shelf components. Church originally planned to create an instruction manual for building a Polonator from scratch and post it on the Internet, but he ultimately decided that it would be more effective to develop a commercial device. His team partnered with Danaher Motion, a precision-instrument maker that built movable microscope stages for earlier versions of the technology. Over the past year, Danaher has worked with Church to develop the cheapest and most robust system possible.
The device is a commercial version of the polony sequencing approach developed in Church’s lab over the past 10 years. Millions of beads coated with small fragments of the DNA to be sequenced are spread on a glass slide. Next, a series of fluorescently labeled DNA bases bind to the fragments. Finally, a standard fluorescence microscope reveals which base is at each position on a fragment. (The commercial version of the technology can accommodate a billion beads and has a more sophisticated imaging instrument.)