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11 September, 2019 - 10:47 By Tony Quested

Cambridge spearheads £200m genome sequencing revolution

Paula Dowdy

Cambridge genetic research world-leaders the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre and Illumina are spearheading a blockbusting £200 million genomics programme funded by the UK Government and corporate partners.

The Wellcome Trust and four global pharma companies including AstraZeneca, which is now headquartered in the Cambridge life science and technology cluster, are co-funding the venture.

In a world-leading genomics programme, the full 500,000 samples in the UK Biobank will undergo whole genome sequencing on an unprecedented scale. Illumina sequencing technology will be used to sequence the samples at both the research motherships for the venture – The Wellcome Sanger Institute and deCode in Iceland. 

Both centres will use Illumina’s fastest, most robust instrument, which is the NovaSeq 6000 sequencer that allows scientists to read 20 billion fragments of DNA at one go.

Funding comes from a consortium formed by the government’s research and innovation agency, UK Research and Innovation, with £50 million through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, £50m from Wellcome and a further £100m from four of the world’s leading biopharma and healthcare companies Amgen, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson. 

All have Cambridge links while AstraZeneca has its corporate HQ and a leading R & D hub based locally.

Illumina has worked with scientists from both Sanger and deCode to optimise the sequencing effort so that it is maximally cost-effective.

Illumina’s senior VP and general manager for the EMEA headquarters at Granta Park, Paula Dowdy, has paid tribute to the Biobank volunteers “who have generated this invaluable resource over more than a decade.”

She added: “We are proud to support the project through the use of whole genome sequencing technology and unlock the power of 450,000 genomes in addition to the 50,000 sequenced in the pilot project to deliver world-leading genetic data that could transform the lives of so many.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the initiative. He said: “Britain has a proud history of putting itself at the heart of international collaboration and discovery. 

“Over 60 years ago, we saw the discovery of DNA in Cambridge by a team of international researchers and today we are going even further. Now we are bringing together experts from around the globe to work in the UK on the world’s largest genetics research project, set to help us better treat life-threatening illnesses and ultimately save lives.

“Breakthroughs of this kind wouldn’t be possible without being open to the brightest and the best from across the globe to study and work in the UK.

“Genomics research has the potential to create a genuinely predictive, more personalised healthcare system and the UK has a clear desire to seize the opportunities that research in this area offers, which is why the Government has committed to carrying out five million analyses of DNA by 2024.

“The new project aims to improve health through genetic research, improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses including cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis and dementia.”

As Business Weekly reports online today and in its September 12 issue, Illumina is expanding further from its new Granta Park HQ having filled the original working place pretty much after moving in.

It built additional expansion capacity into the blueprint for the new EMEA headquarters and Dowdy says the company will be taking up the option.

Illumina has continually expanded on the legacy of Cambridge sequencing pioneer Solexa which it bought for $650m in 2007.

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