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Cambridge scientists win technology award for their DNA sequencing method

24 May 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1096

The Millennium Technology Prize has been awarded to UK researchers who developed a widely used approach to genome sequencing.

Professors Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Sir David Klenerman, both from Cambridge University, were awarded the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize for their work on DNA sequencing. The pair are credited with developing next-generation sequencing (NGS) – the technology behind the 100,000 Genomes Project.

'The future potential of NGS is enormous and the exploitation of the technology is still in its infancy. The technology will be a crucial element in promoting sustainable development through personalisation of medicine, understanding and fighting killer diseases, and hence improving the quality of life,' said Professor Päivi Törmä who chaired the selection committee.

NGS has allowed much faster DNA sequencing than the technologies used in the early days of the Human Genome Project. The first human genome took a decade to sequence and cost billions of pounds. Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman had the idea of cutting the DNA into small pieces which can be quickly decoded and then using a computer to re-assemble the complete sequence

Modern NGS machines can sequence 48 complete human genomes in 48 hours, at a cost of around $1000 each. This efficiency and cost-effectiveness has allowed genome sequencing to be deployed widely and in a huge variety of settings. 

It is being used to help diagnose rare disease patients and critically ill children as part of the National Health Service (NHS) genomic medicine service (see BioNews 1030) and has been an invaluable tool in sequencing coronavirus samples to track different variants during the pandemic. 

The prize is awarded every two years by the Technology Academy Finland and recognises 'innovations that promote the wellbeing of mankind and society'. Of nine previous winners, three have subsequently been awarded a Nobel Prize. 

'To actually be part of the project that’s gone all the way to the point where, in our lifetimes, we see it bringing some benefits to societies – you couldn’t ask for more,' Professor Klenerman told The Times.

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