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David Bentley, Former Head of Wellcome Human Genetics, On His New Solexa Role

David Bentley
Incoming Chief Scientist

Name: David Bentley

Position: Incoming Chief Scientist, Solexa

Background: Head of Human Genetics, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Senior Lecturer, University of London Division of Medical & Molecular Genetics

Education: PhD, Biochemistry, University of Oxford

As it chases the so-called $100,000 genome with a sequencing platform due next year, along with the more-distant goal of a $10,000 genome, Solexa is looking for leadership from new hire David Bentley, the former head of Human Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. At the institute, Bentley contributed to its participation in the Human Genome Project, The SNP Consortium, and the International Haplotype Mapping Project — experience that the company hopes will propel its next-generation platform through development and commercialization.

How does your experience with Wellcome bear on your new position at Solexa?

I guess there are two things. First of all, my interest in Solexa goes back to the very beginning of the company. Before it was formed fully, I joined their initial advisory board, as the thing developed. I've always had a strong interest in the technology of sequencing in any case, and the technology development.

Now, clearly the Solexa technology is coming of age — I think it's overcome many of the critical R&D hurdles that were facing it in the early stages — and it is now time to invest significantly in applications to genetics, and in particular in human genetics. So, certainly my previous position in developing genetics and genomic applications to medical problems certainly is a good fit between myself and the environment which the company offers.

Has Solexa finalized a timeline on when it will place a workable sequencing system?

I think the business plan has been formed over the last few month, and certainly things are looking good. So, clearly, they have a number of steps to go through in the next few months. Certainly, the first instruments are going through their paces at the moment.

Does Solexa have any plans to prove its system in a large sequencing project, such as the pilot program of the Human Cancer Genome Project?

I think we'd certainly like to be. I think the Solexa technology shows promise for the very large-scale applications and the demands required for it. So, certainly we hope the Solexa technology will be part of it, compared with other technologies, and so forth.

In the longer term, it should develop a very high-throughput analysis of large sample sizes, which I think is really what the Cancer Genome Project needs.

I think there will be funding in a number of areas, potentially — there's funding for both for basic technology development, to go for faster, cheaper, more complete sequencing as we go through the next two or three years. And also, perhaps, for actually being involved in some of the application work itself — certainly in collaboration with other centers, actually collaborating on the science, as well as providing technology. So, I hope we'll be involved in any or all of those ways.

Are there other projects in which Solexa's technology might get involved?

There are non-cancer-based sequence variation projects. I think we'll have a strong focus on human genomic variation and its relation to medical applications. We are looking at whole-genome sequencing as our major goal. We will look at applications for regions of the genome of particular interest, and genome-wide scans of genes. Clearly, with a very effective, robust platform, it's possible to put a number of starting materials onto it, and I think we also see applications in other areas of well, bacterial and yeast applications. But we do have a strong interest in the genetic angle.

The company 454 Life Sciences is ahead of the pack, as far as getting a platform on the market. What are the strengths of Solexa's device, to propel it in a competitive market?

Very low cost. We have a very robust, scalable technology, a very simple chemistry and detection system, with a very large number of features per surface area, and that's going to be very good at tackling the very large genomic resequencing projects.

So, I think while all the platforms have a way to go to scale up for these areas, some of the basic parameters and the background chemistry, which Solexa offers make it a very strong contend for the long term.

Will Solexa stay largely focused on sequencing?

That's the main application so far for the platform. Clearly we've thought about other things as well, and there'll be a lot more thinking to be done. I think there's a danger of spreading too thinly early on. So, certainly that's where the major development is pitched, and the first launch is undoubtedly for high-throughput sequencing.

What's the first task you'll be involved in, when you begin your role at Solexa?

We'll be looking at all the steps in the process leading to sequencing, with a strong emphasis in looking at how to tackle large-scale human genome sequencing. We're also looking at expression applications — sequence-based expression profiling, which is already a major activity over at the Hayward site, in San Francisco [Bay Area]. So those will be the main areas to look at.

What were you involved with at the Sanger Institute that is relevant to your new position?

They are very similar. I've been involved in both exon-based gene resequencing, and at least proposing to look at new platforms for whole-genome resequencing as well. So, there's a very logical progression from where my research interests were leading anyway, within Sanger. So, very similar. Those weren't cancer-based, they were more purely related to sequence variation.

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