Oxford Nanopore's PromethION competes with gene-sequencers from Illumina of California

Amgen, the US biotechnology group, has invested £50m in Oxford Nanopore, in a deal that values the UK developer of gene-reading machines at £1.5bn.

California-based Amgen is the first big user of DNA sequencing machines to invest in Nanopore.

Amgen’s subsidiary deCode Genetics, which searches through human genomes for causes of disease that could lead to new drugs, is already an enthusiastic customer, according to its founder Kári Stefánsson.

He said the technology “creates a window into parts of the genome that have been out of reach, as well as giving us a much better handle on structural variants that confer risk of a wide variety of diseases”.

“We have used Oxford Nanopore technology to sequence several hundred human genomes and continue to see the promise of this emerging technology,” he added.

But Amgen’s equity investment will not give it privileged access to Nanopore technology.

Oxford Nanopore’s technology is based on electrically charged nanopores, which are microscopic holes inside protein molecules.

The machine pulls strands of DNA through the nanopores, recording the distinct change in current for each of the four letters of the genetic code (G, A, T and C). Combining these signals gives the whole sequence of the DNA molecule.

Amgen has acquired a 3 per cent stake in Nanopore by buying existing shares at the same price per share as new investors paid at the company’s previous funding round. That raised £100m in March of this year from GIC in Singapore, China Construction Bank and Australia’s Hostplus.

London-listed IP Group, which was one of the original investors when Nanopore was set up in 2005 as an Oxford university spinout, has not sold any shares to Amgen.

It remains the largest shareholder, with a stake of 18.3 per cent worth about £270m. Other significant shareholders include Lansdowne Partners, Invesco, Woodford Investment Management and Redmile.

Nanopore caught scientists’ attention with its early products, including the world’s first small, lightweight and portable DNA sequencer called MINION, which has since been used on the International Space Station.

But the company is now promoting the large, lab-based PromethION sequencer that Amgen’s deCode has been using.

The device competes directly with machines from Illumina of California, which dominates the $3bn-a-year DNA sequencing market with machines that use different technology.

According to Nanopore’s critics, its machines, unlike Illumina’s, are not capable of delivering the extremely accurate DNA readouts required for some applications.

But the company said it aims to close the accuracy gap. It has already achieved 99.98 per cent accuracy and is aiming for 99.999 per cent.

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