DNA has been at the heart of Roche’s diagnostics business for 20 years. In 1991 the Swiss pharmaceutical group bought worldwide rights to polymerase chain reaction, the key technology for manipulating and amplifying genetic material.
Since then, Roche has developed and acquired a wide range of tests for detecting and decoding DNA, ranging from individual genes in viruses and bacteria to the whole human genome – the 3bn biochemical “letters” that make up our genetic code.
In 2007 Roche bought 454 Life Sciences, based in Connecticut, a leading producer of “high throughput” DNA sequencers. Although 454 still has a loyal following of customers, it is regarded in today’s fast-moving gene reading industry as a niche player.
The current leaders in large-scale DNA sequencing are Illumina, for which Roche has bid $5.7bn, and Life Technologies, another US company.
Although Illumina probably has the largest market share, Life Technologies laid down a big challenge earlier this month when it announced a new sequencer that can read a whole human genome in less than a day for $1,000.
Other innovative companies such as Oxford Nanopore of the UK are also poised to launch fast new gene sequencers.
As the cost of DNA sequencing plummets, the technology will move from biomedical research labs – the main users today – into mainstream clinical practice, a huge new market.
On Wednesday, for example, a UK government committee urged the National Health Service to embrace genomics, as a way to tailor patients’ treatments to their individual genetic make-up.