This story has been updated to include additional information about genome coverage of Twist's SARS-CoV-2 sequencing panel.
NEW YORK – Twist Bioscience revealed Thursday that it has been expanding its targeted next-generation sequencing products by developing genotyping panels for pharmaceutical firm Regeneron as well as minimal residual disease testing assays.
Twist CEO and Cofounder Emily Leproust discussed these and other business developments, such its work on coronavirus and DNA data storage, on a conference call following the release of the firm's first quarter fiscal 2021 results. During the quarter, NGS revenues were more than synthetic biology revenues for the first time in the company's history.
The NGS revenues included a $4.5 million order for liquid biopsy customers conducting studies in preparation for commercial launch. Leproust declined to disclose which customers these were, but said the firm is preparing a full commercial launch of its methylation assay in the near future "which directly facilitates liquid biopsy customers," she said, adding that the company sees it as a continuing area of growth. She said that some of those liquid biopsy customers are pursuing minimal residual disease detection in cancer.
She also noted that the firm has done at least $9 million in business with Regeneron, as it converts from SNP microarrays to NGS-based genotyping. Twist disclosed the partnership last month at the virtual JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. "Regeneron has put together a comprehensive, diverse, global set of SNPs which is more efficient yet more broadly captures genetic diversity globally," Leproust said.
The projects provide a critical third data point that the company can now highlight to help convince other customers to convert their array-based genotyping to Twist's NGS approach. "We need to show that we can be cheaper than the microarray. Nobody will switch if it's more expensive," she said. "So, now with Regeneron, with Helix, with Ancestry, we have multiple data points that it is the case."
Leproust also touted the firm's SARS-CoV-2 sequencing assay, launched in November. "As the US seeks to ramp genomic surveillance for the coronavirus pandemic, we believe we can be part of the solution to identify variants and that tracking of viral evolution and surveillance will be key to public health globally," she said.
PCR-based approaches to coronavirus sequencing are "maybe a little bit easier to implement, but the results are not as good," Leproust said.
A recent comparison run by Twist customer Stephan Ossowski, a researcher at Germany's University of Tubingen, showed that hybridization-based method resulted in better genome coverage, though Leproust declined to provide specifics.
Amplicon-based assays are "perfect if you want to type the strain, get the taxonomy, find out if it's the British or South African, or whatever variety you're looking for. Normally that's more than enough," Ossowski said in a Twist webinar posted to YouTube. "If you want perfect continuous assembly, it's not the first or the best choice."
Revenue from COVID-19 products, including its synthetic RNA controls, were not material to the company's performance; however, they are helping to land new customers. "We've added about 500, 600 new customers there, and they're actually coming back for additional NGS and synbio business," CFO Jim Thorburn said on the call. "What's particularly interesting for us is the increased number of customers and the increased share of wallet we can go after in those customers."
Leproust also highlighted the firm's efforts to build a DNA-based data storage business. She presented a case study in archival storage of film and video using DNA, rather than tape, or even cloud-based storage. Media failures and hardware obsolescence make storing these data more and more expensive over time, while costs for storing it in DNA remain flat. "Lowering the prices of DNA to $100 per terabyte … makes DNA the clear choice for long-term storage," she said. "Currently, we are working to reduce the price, and we are now below $1,000 per megabyte with aggressive efforts ongoing."
She also expanded on Twist's decision to ally with sequencing provider Illumina and technology firms Western Digital and Microsoft, among others, to establish standards for this field. "The idea of the alliance is to basically grease the wheels of future commercialization," she said. "There's still a lot of work ahead, but we have line of sight that it's working and that we're going to get there. So we want to make sure that when the product is ready, that some of the go-to-market has already started."