By Kevin Davies
January 12, 2009 | Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a promising British technology company developing a nanopore-based method for next-generation DNA sequencing, has signed a key strategic alliance with Illumina.
Under the terms of the agreement, San Diego-based Illumina will exclusively market, sell, distribute, and service Oxford Nanopore’s forthcoming sequencing technology into research and diagnostic markets on a worldwide basis. The two firms will share the profits from sales. Illumina is also making an $18-million investment in Oxford Nanopore, in return for a minority equity stake, which will go towards technology development, and make a further milestone payment dependent on future progress. No target release date for the device has been given.
“Oxford Nanopore’s technology holds tremendous promise to achieve the sub-$1,000 human genome,” said Jay Flatley, Illumina’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Making electrical measurements of unmodified DNA removes the need for complex sample prep and the high-performance optics found in today’s sequencing systems. We look forward to a long and productive partnership with Oxford Nanopore.”
Oxford Nanopore CEO Gordon Sanghera said: “This alliance brings together today’s commercial leader in the field and what we believe will be the future’s best sequencing technology. The agreement reflects the rapid progress we have made in developing nanopore technology towards being the first label-free, single-molecule sequencing system. The partnership will enable us to further accelerate our development and enable broad commercialization through Illumina’s significant commercial infrastructure.”
Oxford Nanopore’s BASE (“Bayley Sequencing”) technology is named after founder Hagan Bayley, a professor of chemical biology at Oxford University. The company was founded in 2005, has about 45 employees, and is based in a pastoral science park on the outskirts of Oxford.
Oxford Nanopore’s “new generation” sequencing system uses natural protein nanopores composed of an engineered bacterial protein called alpha-hemolysin, which Bayley’s team first crystallized more than a decade ago. This multisubunit protein forms a donut-shaped molecule through which all kinds of molecules, including DNA, can traverse.
While classic studies from the lab of Harvard’s Dan Branton showed that long DNA molecules could pass through the nanopore, the BASE system uses an exonuclease enzyme, attached to the nanopore, to chew off single bases from the DNA template. As these bases pass through the nanopore channel, they can be discriminated by the degree to which they interfere with the electrical current. Oxford Nanopore has a paper in press in Nature Nanotechnology on the base discrimination studies.
In principle, Oxford Nanopore’s sequencing system can read off single-molecule DNA sequences by their electrical signature, without need for lasers, microscopes, fluorescent tags or other highly expensive equipement. Recordings from multiple channels in parallel could enable very high-throughput sequencing of DNA, although the company’s current prototypical chips handle a little more than 100 nanopores in parallel.
Illumina’s interest in nanopore sequencing is further evidence of the public company’s desire to look ahead to “next-next generation” sequencing technologies. Last November, the manufacturer of the GA instrument celebrated the publication of three human genome sequences in Nature – the first African, Asian and cancer genomes. John Milton and Clive Brown, the leaders of chemistry and informatics at Oxford Nanopore, were both instrumental in developing the sequencing platform at Solexa, which Illumina bought for $600 million in 2006.
Oxford Nanopore also announced that it has secured an additional $3 million in private investment. The IP Group, a leading UK university intellectual property commercialization company, which funded the launch of Oxford Nanopore, said it retained just under 29% shareholding in the company, with a total fair value gain of just under $5 million.