Roche Shuts Down Third-Generation NGS Research Programs

April 23, 2013

By Kevin Davies

April 23, 2013 | News that Roche is merging and laying off some 170 workers in Germany and Branford, CT, does not bode well for its efforts to reclaim some momentum in next-generation sequencing.

Roche announced that it is closing its Applied Science Business Area because of funding cuts and price pressures, at the end of 2013. It will instead establish a dedicated unit to focus solely on next-generation sequencing (NGS). “This unit will be tasked with implementing a sequencing strategy from life-science research to clinical diagnostics, explor[ing] internal and external opportunities that can provide customers with differentiated products, and will also manage Roche’s existing sequencing business,” the company said in a statement.

Roche’s 454 pyrosequencing platform has been overshadowed in recent years by the emergence of Illumina’s NGS instruments as well as Ion Torrent’s semiconductor sequencing benchtop sequencer, the Ion Proton. 454 still has loyal customers, particularly in Europe, and the reliable long reads still prove invaluable in certain research and clinical arenas. But the platform is costly and 454 faced the prospect of obsolescence unless it could develop a new platform.

454’s ongoing sequencing research was centered in two main areas. One was in semiconductor sequencing, with the aim of commercializing an ISFET device not unlike Ion Torrent’s technology. (Ironically, Ion Torrent and 454 Life Sciences were both founded by Jonathan Rothberg.) According to one 454 source, that technology was about two years away from commercialization.

However, Roche stated that it had decided “to return the ISFET project for the development of a semiconductor-based sequencing system” to UK-based DNA Electronics. “Roche believes that it will be unable to disrupt the market with the product at launch,” the company said.

Bio-IT World profiled DNA Electronics and its founder, Chris Toumazou, in this 2011 story, in which he touched upon the Roche partnership.

Synthetic Sequencing

The other initiative was a longer-term play in the area of synthetic nanopores. While most attention in nanopore sequencing has focused on Oxford Nanopore, which utilizes genetically engineered bacterial nanopores, Roche sought to perform an end around Oxford and other start-ups by partnering with IBM in 2010. (See this Bio-IT World story from July 2010 on the partnership.)

However, both of those research programs are now dead—at least as far as Roche is concerned.

In a brief statement to Bio-IT World, IBM’s Ajay Royyuru, Director of the Computational Biology Center at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York State, said:

“IBM will continue to research and collaborate on DNA sequencing with nanotechnology to achieve the vision of whole human genome sequencing at a cost under $1,000… The work with Roche, which started in June 2010, contributed tremendous progress and lessons learned to this grand challenge project and we will be publishing these results in peer-reviewed scientific journals in the near future. We continue to value Roche as a client in other projects and wish them continued success.”

In a press release, Roche massaged the news, insisting that it remains committed to its life science business, particularly in the diagnostics arena. Roland Diggelmann, COO of Roche’s Diagnostics Division, commented: “We concluded that reorganizing our life-science business will allow us to fully leverage the synergies these products have with our existing clinical diagnostic portfolio. Roche remains committed to the life-science business and we will continue to serve our customers with our existing life science portfolio and experts in the field.”

Forbes technology correspondent Matthew Herper probably spoke for many when he wrote, “For the record, I hope Roche is making a terrible decision, and that IBM does introduce a brilliant and wonderful DNA sequencing technology.”

The Roche news ironically comes as Illumina shares bounced 15 percent following stronger than expected sales in its Q1 earnings report.