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Faster, Cheaper, Better


How is genomics technology like the computer industry? Let the pundits count the ways.

1 Sequencing and other genome technologies follow Moore’s Law. Says Mark Sutherland, vice president of genomics at Amersham Pharmacia Biotech: “Plot back 10 years and you’ll see that the cost per finished base — taking into account labor, throughput, and reagents — has declined along the same curve as computing costs. Genomics sequencing power is doubling every 18 months.”

Applied Biosystems General Manager Elaine Heron notes that ABI sequencers’ throughput has improved 200-fold in 10 years.

Marcus Droege, international product manager for genome sequencing and bioinformatics at MWG Biotech, predicts sequencing throughput improvements along these lines: “We’re at the stage of 100,000 reads in 10 working days. The next step is 1 million sequences in 10 working days.” How far off is this future? Three to five years, says Droege.

2 Current capillary electrophoresis sequencing instruments are like mainframe computers. Next-generation sequencers will be more like PCs. Take Sydney Brenner’s prediction as told to Aaron Sender in this month’s cover story: An adaptation of the Lynx Megaclone technology may be what enables any molecular biology lab to sequence like Celera.

John Fosnacht, director of sales and marketing for SpectruMedix, a State College, Pa., company that sold its first 96-capillary sequencing instrument to Procter and Gamble in March 2000, says the sequencing factory marketplace is sold out. “We see the market post-genome [as] individual researchers at individual labs doing mutation analysis. You’ll sell 100 [instruments] to 100 people.”

Sutherland concurs. “We think one way we can be successful is to work with individual researchers and provide tools for SNPs, genotyping, and fragment analysis. Looking out three, four, five years, the microchannel chip technology lends itself to diagnostics and point of care use.”

Amersham, he says, sees a “very large opportunity to expand into the market of core labs and individual researchers.” The MegaBACE 500 developed for that market allows the user to operate with up to 48 capillaries and is easily upgradeable to 96, he notes.

3 Small upstarts have the industry’s own Big Blue to contend with. At last count, the market was flooded with 700 of Amersham’s MegaBACE 1000 instruments and 2,000 ABI 3700s. “It’s not easy to compete with a $2 billion company,” says Fosnacht, referring to ABI. Sure, his firm SpectruMedix has sold 15 instruments and grown from 18 to 50 employees in six months. But “we have to be more guerrilla-like,” Fosnacht says, to compete with a company of 4,000.

Further, the lack of serious competition leaves customers at the mercy of the two dominant players. Observes DNA Sciences CEO Hugh Rienhoff, “So much money has been put into MegaBACE and 3700 development that I think they’ll make those machines better — you’ll be able to bolt on new gizmos, maybe an FM radio or something — but they’re not going to cannibalize their own market for the next generation until that market is completely saturated.”

That, he suggests, is one reason no one but DNA Sciences will get access to the microchannel-chip sequencing device within the next two years.

4 The technology is here to stay. Your grandchildren will use sequencing instruments, Rienhoff predicts: “People will be using sequencing devices for a long time.” That’s what we’re counting on, anyway.

Adrienne Burke, Editor in Chief


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