UK biotech firm Oxford Nanopore Technologies this week announced that it has exclusively licensed from Harvard University intellectual property surrounding the use of nanopore technology for DNA sequencing.
The licensing deal specifically covers research discoveries made in the labs of three investigators at Harvard and their collaborators at the University of California Santa Cruz and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the US Department of Commerce.
The majority of the research behind the IP was conducted in the laboratories of Harvard professors Daniel Branton, George Church, and Jene Golovchenko, who pioneered the use of nanopores as a way to translocate, and eventually sequence, DNA, Oxford Nanopore said.
According to Oxford Nanopore CEO Gordon Sanghera, the company has negotiated a single licensing agreement with Harvard, which has its own inter-institutional agreement with UCSC and NIST regarding the technology.
“It was basically Harvard’s call,” Sanghera told BTW this week. “Most institutions in my experience tend to [name] a majority university” in these cases. In this particular case, one of the original Harvard collaborators, David Deamer, moved on to UCSC; and the team also actively collaborated with NIST’s John Kasianowicz, Sanghera said.
“But the bulk of the work and the real drive and innovation came out of Harvard,” he added. “I think it is a common practice for most institutions that I’ve come across to tend to have these cross-license agreements in place. They do go back and review the licenses as part of the process, but this was solely with Harvard.”
Financial terms of the licensing agreement were not disclosed. However, Sanghera said that the agreement was a “standard boilerplate” academic licensing deal including an up-front payment, milestones, and royalties.
Oxford Nanopore is a 2005 spinout of Oxford University and is based on the work of company founder and Oxford University professor Hagan Bayley.
The company is developing nanopores that could be used to sequence DNA and analyze other molecules. Nanopores have inner diameters small enough to be used to directly identify many single molecules without using chemical labeling, and have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost and time required to sequence DNA, Oxford Nanopore said.
According to Sanghera, the IP that Oxford Nanopore licensed from Oxford University revolves around the use of mutating or chemically rearranging biological nanopores as a platform for single-molecule sensing.
Meantime, the technology developed at Harvard can be divided into two distinct subsets, Sanghera said. The first breakthrough is the ability to pass strands of DNA through biological nanopores.
“We’re really trying to bring together an academic community to deliver nanopore products … and put ourselves in a position where people want to come to us to commercialize their great ideas on nanopore single-molecule sensing.”
“There is a lot of fundamental concept IP [here] on the use of biological pores for DNA sequencing and other sensor applications using unmodified biological pores,” Sanghera said.
In addition, Branton and Golevchenko have now moved their research on to work on solid-state nanopores, typically in silicon, which removes the biological component and adds stability to the nanopores.
“When you look at that as a continuum, it kind of reflects the generations of products we see being developed,” Sanghera said. “Right now the company is focused on exonucelase sequencing with biological pores that are genetically or chemically modified.
“The next evolution … will be to actually have strands going through a biological pore, and that would require the Harvard [IP],” he added. “As we evolve, and engineering innovation occurs, and holes can be made small enough and can be chemically modified, we see solid-state pore as the ultimate end game in sequencing.”
Drawing an analogy to a drug-discovery R&D pipeline, Sanghera said the company is focused on building a “very deep pipeline for nanopore products — now, next gen, and the generation after that — the entire continuum of how you might make a nanopore single-molecule sensing system.”
Harvard has been a hotbed of research activity in the area of nanopore sequencing technology. Last year, the university licensed single-molecule nanopore sequencing technology that had been developed by a former professor, Amit Meller, to genotyping company Sequenom, which competes with Oxford Nanotech in a small subset of its business (see BTW, 10/1/2007).
That technology, however, differs from the nanopore technology that Oxford Nanopore is developing in that it is optical-based.
“What Sequenom has is a small carve-out of some of the Harvard IP … for optical nanopore sequencing, so you still have to do the labeling and the optical read,” Sanghera said. “The key is that with our nanopores we basically have the ability to do amplification-free and label-free single-molecule detection. Specifically in the context of sequencing, we don’t need to label the bases or use optical systems, which we believe gives us a real advantage.”
Sanghera added that Meller’s work is “a fantastic piece of science, but we feel we’re one step ahead of that.”
Oxford Nanopore is likely not finished tapping Harvard — or academic labs, in general — to fill its R&D pipeline. Sanghera said that in the coming months the company, which also has licensing agreements with the University of Massachusetts and Texas A&M University, will likely seek out cutting-edge nanopore technologies being developed at other academic institutions.
“Strategically, we’re really trying to develop the brand and have one technology developer for nanopores,” Sanghera said. “We’re really trying to bring together an academic community to deliver nanopore products … and put ourselves in a position where people want to come to us to commercialize their great ideas on nanopore single-molecule sensing.”
Furthermore, the company maintains collaborative research agreements with both Oxford and Harvard. “We believe in what they are doing, and we see it as groundbreaking, and see that as our research pipeline,” Sanghera said. “We are very much focused on getting our first nanopore products out of the door, but we believe that this platform is going to be revolutionary in a broad range of applications.”