By Monica Heger
Life Technologies plans to launch its 318 chip for the Ion Torrent PGM in a "couple of weeks" and is increasing the system's average read length to 200 base pairs, with chemistry "indicating that the base pair reads will go much higher," said CEO Greg Lucier at the UBS Global Life Sciences conference in New York today.
Because of these improvements to semiconductor sequencing, as well as the long-term potential of the approach, Lucier said that the company is "putting all chips into Ion Torrent" and predicted that light-based sequencing, on which its own SOLiD and Illumina's sequencers are based, "is nearing the end."
"Nothing can compete with semiconductor sequencing in terms of speed, economics, and simplicity," he said in a breakout Q&A session at the conference.
Installations of the Ion Torrent PGM are "exceeding our own estimates," he said. The company has gone from "zero to tens of millions" of dollars in sales in about 12 months, and "we're just getting going," he said.
Aside from revenue from the instrument itself, which sells for a list price of $50,000, Lucier said the company expects to generate around $80,000 in consumables per instrument per year, based on an estimate of three runs per week.
Light-based sequencing is more complex than semiconductor sequencing and not as profitable for Life Tech, Lucier added. He said that the PGM's scalability would allow the company to deliver not only a low-cost sequencer with low- to mid-throughput, but, eventually, a "low-price sequencer that has massive throughput."
Despite this focus on the PGM, Lucier said the company is still committed to its SOLiD 5500 instrument, which it launched late last year. He said that there would be some additional enhancements and improvements to the instrument to increase its throughput, which is currently between 10 and 15 gigabases per day.
Additionally, he said he expects to see the Ion Torrent move into new applications, such as forensics. Sequencing in the forensics field has been primarily dominated by capillary electrophoresis sequencing, with instruments in large centralized laboratories, such as at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He said that the PGM would not replace these machines, but rather would give smaller forensic laboratories access to sequencing for the first time. He expects the PGM to enter that market especially as its read lengths increase.
However, Lucier said that neither the PGM, nor any other benchtop sequencer, would replace CE instruments in the near team, and noted that Life Tech's CE business remains strong.
"No technology is eroding CE," he said. While the use of CE machines in research is "flattening out," there continue to be "new opportunities," particularly in molecular diagnostics. In fact, the company recently submitted its 3500 Dx Genetic Analyzer and SeCore HLA typing kit for 510(k) clearance with the US Food and Drug Administration (CSN 8/3/2011).
The long read lengths and accuracy of CE instruments cannot be matched by next-gen sequencers, he said.
Illumina has said that it plans to target the CE market with its upcoming MiSeq benchtop instrument, but Lucier said that CE's read lengths of more than 1,000 base pairs could not be matched by other technology, and that even the FDA has said that CE sequencing is the "gold standard" for identifying a sequence.
"Notions that CE will be impacted by these other instruments next year are erroneous," he said.
Finally, Lucier addressed concerns that the company would be impacted by cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget. He said that the 2012 NIH budget would remain relatively stable. There may be budget cuts, but the NIH "won't be gutted" and demand for sequencing and genomics research is "not falling off a cliff."
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