Four years ago, the NHGRI launched an initiative to fund innovative research aimed at sequencing the entire human genome for $1,000. This would represent a tremendous savings from the current price of several hundred thousand dollars. Hagan Bayley, Ph.D., an expert in membrane protein engineering at the University of Oxford in U.K., was one of the grant recipients.
Dr. Bayley founded Oxford NanoLabs in 2005 to develop a technology that identifies individual molecules using nanopores. One use of this platform is to detect nucleotides as DNA strands are pulled through nanopores. This technology also can be applied to rapid, cost-effective, and highly sensitive kits for diagnosing human diseases and bioterrorism agents.
In May 2008, the company changed its name to Oxford Nanopore Technologies. “When we set the company up three years ago, many people did not know what a nanopore was,” says Spike Willcocks, Ph.D., director of business development. Now the potential of nanopores, which form naturally in some proteins, has become better known to people working in DNA sequencing and genomics.
The first reference human genome was sequenced in 2003 by the Sanger chain termination method. This complex process requires DNA amplification, fluorescent tags, and capillary electrophoresis to identify bases. The fixed costs of the labor, reagents, and analytical instruments limit the usefulness of this method for screening large numbers of people to make personalized medicine affordable.
Protein nanopores are an alternative to all that. A few thousand nanopores running in parallel would scale up the nanopore sequencing process, eliminating the costs of reagents and complex steps, according to Dr. Willcocks, thereby bringing the $1,000 price tag closer to reality.