Gene genie to speed DNA research

A technology that can read an entire human genome in minutes, as opposed to the
10 years it has taken scientists, was this week awarded a US patent.

A technology that can read an entire human genome in minutes, as opposed to the 10 years it has taken scientists, was this week awarded a US patent.

It is claimed that the technology, known as the GeneEngine, can read a genome in just 30 minutes, allowing medical specialists and drugs firms to develop personalised healthcare treatments.

The GeneEngine is based on the use of a specially designed microchip, called a nanofluidic chip, and a low-power laser, according to Eugene Chan, inventor of the technology and chief executive officer of US Genomics, the company set up to exploit the development.

Identity scan

‘Suspended in salt water, the normally coiled genome is pumped through the microchip, which stretches it out, enabling the DNA to be observed. As the genome passes the laser its base pairs are scanned for identification.’

The microchip has channels to guide the fluid and stretch its genetic contents past the laser, a device similar to those found in DVD players.

An optical detector then registers the laser light reflections from the DNA and computer software identifies the base pairs. These base pairs, the building blocks of an individual’s genetic information, are the chemicals guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine.

Being able to read DNA so quickly will enable scientists to analyse each individual’s unique biochemistry and design drugs and treatments that suit them.

The only complete genome officially read to date was the subject of the Human Genome Project, a 10-year international endeavour costing $2bn (£1.4bn), which was completed in 2000.

This project has dramatically increased scientists’ understanding of human genetics, and created a market worth an estimated $30bn (£21bn).

But the human genome contains many tiny variations, which can account for anything from a person’s hair colour to their chances of contracting certain types of cancer. To develop truly personalised healthcare and drugs, therefore, firms will need access to each individual’s DNA, said Chan.

The GeneEngine should make this process much quicker and more cost effective, and US Genomics hopes to license the technology to healthcare, pharmaceuticals and insurance firms.

Advisory board

Chan came up with the idea for the technology while studying at Harvard Medical School. He formed the company in 1998, approached potential funders and raised $300,000 (£210,000), enough for nine months of lab work at Boston University’s business incubator centre.

Now 28, he has raised $25m (£17.5m) and is ready to commercialise the technology. The company’s scientific advisory board has been joined by professors of biophysics and chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Based in Woburn, Massachusetts, the firm is collaborating with the Langer Institute, which was instrumental in the Human Genome Project.

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