Comments: Life Technologies buys Ion Torrent

There was some exciting news yesterday from the next-generation sequencing (NGS) field, with the buy-out of Ion Torrent - a start-up that’s developed a novel DNA sequencing machine – by the life-sciences behemoth Life Technologies (for a whopping 350million dollars).

The technology for sequencing of DNA – the blueprint of all life – is at an exciting stage. Ten years ago, the complete human genome was sequenced at the cost of several billion dollars and decades of attempt. Today, a full genome can be sequenced for as little as $10,000 and in less than a week. The price and time are about to drop further with several novel platforms unveiled recently by emerging companies like Pacific Biosciences, Complete Genomics (which sells the sequencing services only), Ion Torrent etc in addition to improved platforms announced by established companies like Illumina and Life Technologies.

Ion Torrent  in particular made waves earlier this year with their new NGS platform, based on detection of the hydrogen ion that is released during the addition of a base [1],  which they claimed would be priced around $50,000 with a few hundred dollars per chip-set to run the sequencing reactions. Although Ion Torrent has not released  information about error rates, cost of prepping the samples etc, the $50K price point is game changing, especially when compared to half a million dollar for most other machines in the market.  It therefore has the potential to bring NGS technologies beyond core facilities and research consortium to individual laboratories.  Now with this acquisition by Life Technologies, the latter’s far-reaching global sales-force should be able to market the product much more effectively than the small company could by itself.

The involvement of Life Technologies, which already has a few sequencing products, is interesting, but in my opinion had almost an air of inevitability about it. Created two years ago from the merger of Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems, Life Technologies is easily one of the largest non-pharma biotechnology companies around.  As anyone who has worked in a biological lab will vouch, an Invitrogen (Life Tech) product on the lab bench is difficult to escape. Ranging from molecular biology enzymes and kits, cell biology and tissue culture products, fluorescent reagents,  to oligonucleotide synthesis  services – you name it, they have it. Invitrogen achieved this near ubiquitous status  in the life science research field through continuous mergers and acquisitions, including well-established players like Novatech, ResGen, Molecular Probes, Life Technologies/GIBCO (from where, interestingly enough it has  resuscitated the post merger name). When it merged with Applied Biosystems which had the SOLiD systems, the company got a toe-hold in the NGS field.  Seen in this context, the buying of Ion Torrent seems almost like a logical progression!

However, as pointed out by Keith Robison, it will be interesting to see how Life Technologies positions the Ion Torrent device in its product portfolio. In addition to the SOliD platform,  the company has also recently announced another NGS machine, codenamed Starlight, which uses quantum dot fluorescence for sequencing, therefore closer to systems being sold by Pacific Biosciences[1].

Overall, the deal should make for some interesting times in the NGS market for the next few years. As Mathew Harper notes on his blog, there is going to be a ‘price war….to the benefit of science’.  With about 60% market share, Illumina currently dominates the sequencing market.  From individual accounts from researchers in the field, it seems like their marketing department has made them well entrenched in the field. However, they do not seem to have any products in the pipeline to compete in the lower price end, except for its investment in Oxford Nanopore, which uses protein pores for DNA scanning – so far an unproven technology. While Pacific Bioscience and Complete Genomics are the two other major players in the horizon (another company Helicos that had optical detection system is now restructuring itself as a diagnostic company); but seemingly, the NGS field is shaping up to be a battle of the I-5 (Life Technologies is headquartered in Carlsbad, just up the freeway from Illumna in La Jolla)!


Notes and other Resources:

1. Details of some of the DNA sequencing technologies are available online at the respective company web-sites. However, do look out for a blog here which describes some of the techniques.

2. More coverage of this news by Dan McArthur, Keith Robison, Luke Timmerman and Matthew Harper, which contain further details on the Ion Torrent technology, and the economic and scientific impacts of this deal.

3.  An earlier blog which briefly profiled Jonathan Rothberg, the founder of Ion Torrent and who earlier invented the 454 technology (now owned by Roche).

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