Illumina aims to undercut rivals with $1,000 genome

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How do you sequence a genome 10 times faster? By running 10 machines at the same time. Illumina’s new genomic analysis system, called HiSeq X Ten, consists of 10 of its HiSeq X devices working in concert, with the combined system able to sequence 50 full human genomes every day.

And if it can be done 10 times faster, it can be done 10 times cheaper. It currently costs around $10,000 to analyse a full human genome, but Illumina says that the much-heralded era of the $1,000 genome has now dawned. Sequencing, however, is only part of the problem; the biggest challenge in genomic science is determining how genes interact. Illumina’s technology will generate plenty of data, but more sophisticated investigation will be necessary before an impact on patients’ health is felt.

Hide and Seq

To be fair to the company, it is positioning this networked platform as a research tool rather than a diagnostic. The system is intended for “population-scale” initiatives such as the UK’s 100K Genomes Project, aimed at identifying genotypic variations to help provide personalised treatment and to study genetic disease.

The individual HiSeq X machines sell for $1m, making the full HiSeq X Ten suite a very expensive toy. Three are understood to have been sold so far – to the Seoul-based sequencing services provider Macrogen, the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.

UBS analyst Daniel Arias says that multiple orders have been received, and adds that a large portion of Illumina’s customer base includes government and academic researchers. But at a time when pricing pressure and cost containment are still watchwords of both government and research institutions, the HiSeq X Ten’s eight-figure price tag will surely limit its appeal.

Still, the per-genome price, which factors in the initial outlay on the HiSeq X Ten, is a huge advantage. Breaching the $1,000 mark ought to spur an increase in the popularity of genomic analysis, thus yielding the vast quantity of genotypic data necessary for research into the prevalence of mutations and the way they affect disease states.

The enormous computing power and cutting-edge software this will require may now become the next frontier.

Revenue growth

Since a slight drop on its rejection of Roche’s takeover bid a year ago, Illumina’s shares have been rising steadily as investors catch on to the promise of rapid genetic sequencing (Biotech exuberance spills over to big medtech, January 13, 2014).

Yesterday the company released its unaudited fourth-quarter results, with revenues of $387m representing a 9% quarter-on-quarter increase. This was also above analysts’ expectations, pegged at around $370m. Illumina's shares rose 7% yesterday as a result of this and the debut of its new products.

Even more promisingly, Illumina’s predictions for the coming year also outpace predictions. The company said fiscal 2014 revenue growth would be between 15% and 17%, compared with the 13% that had been forecast.

If the $1,000 watershed does convince Illumina’s customers that $10m is a sensible investment, sales could rise more rapidly than even it itself predicts. Still, it will be a long time before its potential is realised in terms of patient treatment.

To contact the writer of this story email Elizabeth Cairns in London at elizabethc@epvantage.com or follow @LizEPVantage on Twitter

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