Intelligent Bio-Systems stakes out new ground in the gene race — a $5,000 genome by late next year

The cost of sequencing human genomes is dropping steadily, from several hundred million dollars a decade ago to $100,000 or so today, thanks to a bevy of entrepreneurial companies that have attacked the problem of making the process faster and cheaper with gusto. We’ve looked at several of the newer upstarts in the field, most recently Complete Genomics and Bionanomatrix, Genome Corp. (seventh item), and Genomic Diagnostics (fourth item).

Now another startup is preparing to establish a new benchmark in the fast, cheap and out-of-control gene-sequencing race. Intelligent Bio-Systems, a Waltham, Mass., sequencer, says that by late next year, its new technology should make it possible to sequence a full genome in 24 hours at a cost of just $5,000, according to this VentureWire story (subscription required). Not only is that a jaw-dropping reduction compared to today’s costs, it potentially brings the Holy Grail of the $1,000 genome far closer than than even many optimistic forecasts.

Of course, talk is cheap. IBS, however, says it’s already placed one of its sequencing systems with an undisclosed institution as part of its beta testing, and plans to distribute three more systems next year, with a full launch by the end of 2008. The company’s CEO, Steven Gordon, says the system should be able to sequence five billion DNA “letters” — technically, DNA base pairs — in a day. A full human genome consisting of 23 pairs of chromosomes — such as Craig Venter’s new high-resolution genome — contains six billion base pairs, although many sequencing efforts to date have settled for only one set of chromosomes, or three billion base pairs.

The details of sequencing technology are generally of interest only to experts, so anyone interested in the guts of the IBS approach is welcome to check out the company’s description here. This GenomeWeb story from late last year offers some additional technical analysis.

Assuming that IBS isn’t being wildly over-optimistic, which wouldn’t exactly come as a stunning surprise in this field, the new technology raises the possibility that a sufficiently motivated group might capture the Archon X Prize for Genomics within the next year or so. The $10 million award, offered by the X Prize Foundation, will go to anyone who can sequence 100 genomes in ten days.

Since that challenge amounts to sequencing 60 billion base pairs in 240 hours, anyone who ponies up for a dozen IBS sequencing systems could just barely knock off the requisite 100 genomes in that time period — assuming nothing goes wrong. In actuality, though, this strategy probably wouldn’t qualify for the prize, since the rules require the use of a single “device” in the challenge.

Still, it’s fun to play with the numbers, since this approach — were it legal — could even be profitable. IBS estimates that each system will cost $250,000 to $275,000, or just $3.4 million for the dozen. It’s a fascinating indication of just how fast the whole genomics revolution is moving.

On the far more mundane business front, VentureWire reports that IBS raised an undisclosed amount of first-round venture funding in June from angels and angel groups. The company will be looking for another $10 million to $20 million for commercial launch unless it finds a distribution partner.

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