Life Technologies Fires Latest Sequencing Salvo

SOLiD 4Another week, another drop in the cost of whole-genome sequencing. The latest announcement comes from Life Technologies, which yesterday announced the launch of its SOLiD 4 sequencing system. The details of the announcement are well-covered by GenomeWeb and Matthew Herper of Forbes.com.

In brief, the SOLiD 4 generates 100 gigabases of data per run at a cost of $6,000 per genome, a cost that appears to account solely for the consumables and does not include the cost of the machine or of interpreting all of that sequence data. According to GenomeWeb, Life is also promising an upgrade to its system – SOLiD 4hq – in the second half of 2010 which it expects to triple the data output at half of the cost: 300 megabases per run, $3,000 per sequence.

As for the impact of Life’s SOLiD 4 announcement, Matthew Herper hits the nail on the head:

But although the news is good for Life and will keep it in the game as the price of decoding the genetic code continues to drop, the specs of this new machine don’t seem good enough to upset Illumina’s place as the first choice of geneticists. “It’s a solid improvement, but I don’t think this changes the game,” says Isaac Ro, an analyst at Leerink Swan who follows both companies.

Ro estimates that Illumina currently has 60% of the market in gene sequencers, with the rest split by Life and Roche and perhaps 1% going to Helicos BioSciences. At genome centers, it’s more like 70% Illumina…

New challengers like Pacific Biosciences, which is close to marketing a faster sequencer that can read longer stretches of DNA, and Complete Genomics, which sells sequencing as a service, might be able to compete with Illumina by offering very different products — even if they don’t do the job as cheaply on a per genome basis. But for the time being, Illumina may remain dominant partly because it is so dominant.

Clearly, though, neither Life nor Illumina’s other competitors have any intention of ceding the sequencing market just yet. And with genome sequencing combatants Life, Illumina and Complete Genomics all making headlines in the past few weeks, one has to wonder what the sequencing companies that haven’t made a big splash yet in 2010, including Roche and third-generation sequencing companies such as Pacific Biosciences and Oxford Nanopore, have up their sleeves. The 11th annual Advances in Genome Biology and Technology (AGBT) meeting looms in just under a month, but given the breakneck pace of recent developments, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear more news before then.

What to do with all those new tools? While we wait for the next big sequencing development, one aspect of Life’s announcement that should not be overlooked is the provision by the Life Technologies Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, of $5 million in grants over the next two years “to accelerate the education of physicians in the field of molecular medicine.”

Of the initial grants, which total $600,000, the most intriguing is the one made to the Scripps Translational Science Institute to create a new accreditation board, the Association of Genomic Medicine, which “will be tasked with… establishing an educational curriculum that would lead to the accreditation of physicians in genomic medicine.”

The Genomics Law Report’s recently concluded series – What ELSI is New? – tackled the most pressing ethical, legal and social issues facing genomics and personalized medicine. One of these, as discussed in commentaries by Hank Greely and Misha Angrist, among others, was the general inability of practicing physicians to integrate rapid advances in genomic medicine into patient care.

There is tremendous innovation in the whole-genome sequencing market which produces, in turn, increasingly inexpensive genomic data. But data, no matter how inexpensive, is still just data. As I have written before, for healthcare providers and their patients, the success of personal genomics ultimately depends on the ability to leverage that data in a way that benefits individuals, including by improving patient outcomes and reducing healthcare costs. Credit should go to Life Technologies for recognizing that a sequencing platform represents only one tool in the personal genomics toolkit.