Roche Back in Sequencing Game with $350M Genia Acquisition

June 2, 2014

By Allison Proffitt 

June 2, 2014 | Roche acquired Genia Technologies today, a nanopore sequencing platform, for $125 million in cash and up to $225 million in milestone payments.

"The acquisition of Genia is a further step for Roche to introduce a potentially disruptive technology to the market," said Roland Diggelmann, COO of Roche Diagnostics in a press release from Basel this morning. "The addition of Genia's single-molecule semiconductor sequencing platform using nanopore technology strengthens our next generation sequencing pipeline." 

Genia has been touting a 4th generation--or last-gen--nanopore sequencing platform since at least 2011 and in April of that year closed a strategic investment with Life Technologies that included a "double digit [millions of dollars] investment" and "significant additional in-house resources." (see, "Genia’s Nanopore/Microchip Technology Gains Life Technologies’ Support")

Last year, the company presented data from an "alpha" version of their chip at ICG8 in Shenzhen, and promised a "beta" version in 2014. Bioinformatician and blogger Mick Watson wrote from the event that the technology was interesting, "in that it uses both a biological nanopore and a polymerase."

The beta version of the chip (but not a full platform) is here, Genia's CEO Stefan Roever, told Bio-IT World this afternoon, and it represents some upgrades from Genia's earlier technology. The chip is an integrated circuit with 128,000 integrated sensors--a 500 fold increase from the alpha version's 256 sensors. 

Each sensor is a well with an electrode covered with a lipid bylayer within which is a single nanopore. (At least one million is still the target number of sensors for the commercial version.) Each sensor has its own integrated circuit technology and does the analog-to-digital signal conversion in the chip. 

But while in 2012 Genia was feeding DNA strands through the pores--boasting 50,000 strands of DNA through the pore in succession--the DNA today doesn't pass through the pore at all. 

With collaborative research agreements with George Church's lab at Harvard and Jingyue Ju's lab at Columbia, Genia is developing what Roever calls "nanotag chemistry", a sequencing-by-synthesis approach.  

"We have a polymerase that's attached to the nanopore, and we synthesize an anti-strand to our template strand and we electrically detect those successful incorporation events, and that allows us to infer the sequence of the DNA," Roever told Bio-IT World. "The DNA actually never goes into the pore. We measure the successful incorporations on a single-molecule basis using these nanopores." 

Roever has always said that the Genia platform would appeal to the diagnostics industry for many reasons, and he's as convinced as ever of the fit. 

"Being an electrical platform is going to drive the cost point down," he said, of both the instrument and per-sample cost (no base-by-base flushing keeps reagent costs down). He declined to attach any actual price points to his prediction, but said he expect costs to be "orders of magnitude cheaper than what you have today." 

Any application of broad diagnostics screening--he mentioned prenatal screening and infectious disease applications for example--needs to be in the "hundred to a few hundred dollar range." 

But the technology is not just cheap. Without any library prep, answers can be had in hours, not days, he said. And the small footprint--desktop size in the near term and handheld in the longer term--will be crucial to decentralized deployment, either in clinics, doctors' offices, or more remote locations. 

"Data might be moved to the cloud and analyzed in a data center," he said, "but the deployment of the sensing device or the instrument is decentralized."

Roche has had a tumultuous past with sequencing projects. In April of last year Roche "returned" any development of DNA Electronics' semiconductor sequencer project, and ended a partnership with IBM that was focused on DNA sequencing with nanotechnology. 

Last October, the company announced it would begin shutting down 454, the sequencing platform it acquired in 2007. Manufacturing of 454 sequencers is to be continued through 2015, and the sequencers will continue to be serviced through mid-2016. 

The history doesn't concern Roever, who sees Genia's acquisition "in context" with the 454 announcements last October. Genia's technology is an "upgrade path and migration path for 454 customers," he said.  

Since the 2007 acquisition of 454, Roche demonstrated a "deep understanding" of the future of diagnostics, Roever said. Roche's head of strategic marketing and communications for sequencing, Beth Button, echoed Roche's commitment to sequencing, saying that the 454 platform was pioneering technology and very successful but, there were "inherent limitations to that platform that couldn't be advanced upon."  

Button said sequencing has now, "gone past third generation and into fourth generation," and Roche is, "very, very committed." 

Roche said in its press release that it plans to integrate Genia into the Roche Sequencing Unit, and "continue to focus on the development of this innovative system." 

Roever said that the Genia team will maintain the Genia Technologies name as a wholly-owned subsidiary and all staff and management will stay in their new Mountain View headquarters. (The move to a larger space happened coincidentally with the Roche acquisition, Roever said.)