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Genomics Is Hot (Again)

By Kevin Davies

March 1, 2008 | A few years ago, the “Advances in Genome Biology and Technology” (AGBT) conference was in some trouble. As one of the founding organizers, Eric Green, recalled, attendance was down, sponsors were begging off, and were it not for Applied Biosystems agreeing to underwrite the meeting for a couple of years, the event could have ended.

In a remarkable turnaround, AGBT organizers had to turn away 250 would-be attendees last month, as some 600 scientists, executives, and a smattering of analysts and investors, enjoyed sun, sea, and science on Florida’s Marco Island (See p. 8). Suddenly, whole-genome mapping, digital gene expression, metagenomics, and high-throughput DNA sequencing have coalesced. To paraphrase Paris Hilton, “Genomics is hot!” (again).

The leading vendors all seemingly had reason to celebrate. Illumina presented the first African genome sequence for $100,000. Roche/454 enjoyed a CSI moment, reporting the same week in the New England Journal of Medicine that it had identified the virus underlying a rash of mysterious Australian transplantation fatalities. Helicos announced the landmark sale of its first $1.35-million HeliScope sequencer. And Applied Biosystems presented increases in the performance of its SOLiD system and new members to its software consortium.

But the biggest splash at the meeting was made by Pacific Biosciences, a San Francisco biotech formerly known as Nanofluidics, following a presentation by founder Stephen Turner. Since its launch in 2004, PacBio has been in stealth mode, raising $78 million, hiring a savvy CEO from the telecom industry, and maturing its SMRT (single molecule, real time) technology until it felt ready for the scrutiny of the genomics community. 

When CXOs guarantee they will win the X Prize or sequence a human genome in 15 minutes five years hence, it’s tempting to roll your eyes. In 2002, another young physics prodigy, Eugene Chan of U.S. Genomics, pledged a 45-minute human genome within a few years (See Wanted: The $1,000 Genome, Bio•IT World, Nov. 2002). Eighteen months later, Chan was gone, and his former company out of the sequencing arena.

But Turner reckons Chan erred in starting the company rollout before knowing the technology would work. “The whole period of stealth we were in was essentially motivated from not wanting to make the same mistake that Eugene Chan made,” says Turner. “The reason we’re coming out now, rather than 2005, is that we wanted to be sure it was going to work before we said anything.”

PacBio must still raise $100 million or more in its push to commercialize its SMRT instrument in the next 2-3 years. The competition will only intensify — VisiGen CEO Susan Hardin recently made some provocative “$1,000 genome” predictions of her own. And Helicos executives are confident that they’ll be in the $1000 whole genome neighborhood within two years.

PacBio may have sponsored the beachside fireworks at AGBT, but it’s who will be lighting the fluorescent fireworks a few years hence that is the burning question.

The New Bio•IT World Web Presence
If you haven’t visited our website — — in a while, we suggest you do so. Our new site is part of a radical overhaul of our Internet infrastructure, placing (and branding) it seamlessly within the sites of our parent company, Cambridge Healthtech Institute ( 

Naturally, there is a sweeping redesign that provides greatly improved access to our live news service, magazine content and archives, online commentaries, eNewsletters (including Digital HealthCare & Productivity and PharmaWeek), and other rich content. You will notice sharply improved performance and a slick new search tool, as well as facilities for reader feedback, social bookmarking, and printing stories.

In addition, the new site pulls together a much richer array of content than before, placing Bio•IT World at the heart of the Cambridge Healthtech Media Group. Among the highlights are a series of video interviews with outstanding scientists that we’ve filmed of late at a number of CHI conferences, webinars and podcasts. We’ve even partnered with Google to present a webinar on universal searching for life sciences.

We’ve also been able to synergize the content and services of our sister companies. Conduct a keyword search or click on a news story, and you will instantly find related offerings — a new report from Insight Pharma, or an upcoming conference from CHI. And we’ve also started posting a variety of top job opportunities, which is a reason to keep visiting in itself.

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 This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine.
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