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GnuBio Aims for $30 Genome with New Microfluidics Technology

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Sequencing technology startup company GnuBio has obtained a license from Harvard University to use microfluidics- and emulsion-based technology developed there. These tools will enable the firm to develop a DNA sequencer that can sequence a human genome at 30X coverage — for less than $100 in reagent costs, the company says. GnuBio says the sequencer will also be able to run diagnostic-scale batches across a small candidate gene region at 100X coverage for less than $2 per sample.

The technology comes from the lab of Harvard physicist David Weitz — who is also one of the company's founders — and it is "the key intellectual property for the company," Weitz says. "It's basically what the whole company was founded on. This technology is the essence of GnuBio."

The idea, Weitz says, is to use microfluidics to create small drops, with each drop serving to function as a tiny test tube. What would normally be done with beads or chips in second-generation devices, would be done using picoliters of fluid with GnuBio's new sequencer, cutting down the amount of reagents needed to sequence a genome. This, Weitz adds, translates to big savings.

The initial versions of the machine GnuBio is hoping to build will be able to sequence parts of the genome, but not the whole genome at once. Now that the company has the license, it is aiming to raise the money it needs — less than $10 million — to start building. "We'll have an alpha unit in six to eight months," Weitz says, "and a commercial beta unit for doing partial sequencing within 18 months."

The plan is to start with a small desktop device and then scale up to a bigger machine that can do full-genome sequencing, which Weitz and his colleagues hope to have done within two years. At that point, Weitz says, they expect to be able to sequence a full genome at 60X coverage for about $30 in reagent costs.

The company hopes the technology will change health care and give personalized medicine a leg up. Because the system will allow diagnostic labs and clinicians to analyze smaller batches of samples at a lower cost, genomic analysis for patients would be more cost-effective and could become more widely used. GnuBio also promises that its system will be faster than traditional sequencers. A turnaround time of minutes instead of days may even make its machine attractive for patient care.

Weitz says the company has many interested partners and is about a month away from having the money it needs to start building the sequencer. "After that," he says, "it's fast sailing, and we're not waiting around."

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