science

DNA award: $1.2MILLION Millennium Technology Prize is awarded to two British chemists


A pair of British chemists have won a $1.2 million (£840,000) prize for developing new DNA sequencing technique that helped doctors spot patients at risk of severe Covid-19.

The Millennium Technology Prize has been awarded every two years since 2004 by the Technology Academy Finland (TAF) to highlight the extensive impact of science and innovation on the wellbeing of society.

Cambridge University chemists Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman won the prestigious science and technology prize in 2020 for their new DNA technology. 

They invented Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), a technology enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing.

This is the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s make-up, and has been used to detect those at risk of severe Covid-19.

The technique has also made it significantly faster and cheaper to sequence the human genome, from 10 years in 2000 to a single day in 2020.

Cambridge University chemists Shankar Balasubramanian (right) and David Klenerman (left) won the prestigious science and technology prize in 2020 for their new DNA technology

Cambridge University chemists Shankar Balasubramanian (right) and David Klenerman (left) won the prestigious science and technology prize in 2020 for their new DNA technology

They invented Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), a technology enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing

They invented Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), a technology enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing

NEXT GENERATION DNA SEQUENCING (NGS) SPEEDS UP GENOME SEQUENCES 

The method, Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS) involves  fragmenting samples of DNA into many smaller pieces that are put on the surface of a chip to be examined. 

Each fragment is decoded on the chip, base-by-base, using fluorescently coloured nucleotides that have been added by an enzyme. 

By detecting the colour-coded nucleotides incorporated at each position on the chip with a fluorescence detector – and repeating this cycle hundreds of times – it is possible to determine the DNA sequence of each fragment.

The collected data is then analysed using sophisticated computer software to assemble the full DNA sequence from the sequence of all these fragments.

The NGS method’s ability to sequence billions of fragments in a parallel fashion makes the technique fast, accurate and very cost-efficient. 

The invention of NGS was a completely revolutionary and novel approach to the understanding of the genetic code in all living organisms.

NGS technology has revolutionised global biological and biomedical research and has enabled the development of a broad range of related technologies, applications and innovations. 

Due to its efficiency, NGS is now being widely adopted in healthcare and diagnostics, such as cancer, rare diseases, infectious medicine, and sequencing-based non-invasive prenatal testing.

It is increasingly used to define the genetic risk genes for patients with a rare disease and is now used to define new drug targets for novel therapies for common disease in defined patient groups. 

After inventing the NGS technique, the professors co-founded the company Solexa to make the technology more broadly available to the world.

Their technique has had – and continues to have – a huge transformative impact in the fields of genomics, medicine and biology, say the TAF award committee.

Next generation sequencing provides an effective way to study and identify new coronavirus strains and other pathogens. 

With the emergence of the current pandemic, the technology is now being used to track and explore the novel coronavirus viral mutations like the Indian variant currently taking over as the dominant strain in the UK.

This work has helped the creation of multiple vaccines now being administered worldwide and is critical to the creation of new vaccines against new viral strains. 

The results will also be used to prevent future pandemics, according to the International Selection Committee. 

One measure of the scale of change is that it has allowed a million-fold improvement in speed and cost when compared to the first sequencing of the human genome. 

In 2000, sequencing of one human genome took over 10 years and cost more than a billion dollars, but today it can be done in a day for $1,000 (£704).

More than a million human genomes are sequenced at scale each year, thanks to the technology co-invented by Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman. 

This means we can understand diseases much better and much more quickly. 

The method they developed involves fragmenting samples of DNA into many smaller pieces that are put on the surface of a chip to be examined. 

Each fragment is then decoded on the chip, base-by-base, using fluorescently coloured nucleotides added by an enzyme. 

By detecting the colour-coded nucleotides incorporated at each position on the chip with a fluorescence detector – and repeating this cycle hundreds of times – it is possible to determine the DNA sequence of each fragment.

The collected data is then analysed using sophisticated computer software to assemble the full DNA sequence from the sequence of all these fragments.

The NGS method’s ability to sequence billions of fragments in a parallel fashion makes the technique fast, accurate and very cost-efficient. 

The invention of NGS was a completely revolutionary and novel approach to the understanding of the genetic code in all living organisms, the organisers said. 

Despite the impact on Covid-19, the decision to award the prize to Balasubramanian and Klenerman was made in February 2020 before the global spread of the virus.

The technology is also allowing scientists and researchers to identify the underlying factors in individuals that contribute to their immune response to COVID-19. 

This information is essential to unravelling the reason behind why some people respond much worse to the virus than others. 

Despite the impact on Covid-19, the decision to award the prize to Balasubramanian (right) and Klenerman (left) was made in February 2020 before the global spread of the virus

Despite the impact on Covid-19, the decision to award the prize to Balasubramanian (right) and Klenerman (left) was made in February 2020 before the global spread of the virus

After inventing the NGS technique the professors co-founded the company Solexa to make the technology more broadly available to the world

After inventing the NGS technique the professors co-founded the company Solexa to make the technology more broadly available to the world

WHAT IS A GENOME? 

An organism’s genome is written in a chemical code called DNA.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a complex chemical in almost all organisms that carries genetic information.

It is located in chromosomes the cell nucleus and almost every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA.  

The human genome is composed of more than three billion pairs of these building-block molecules and grouped into some 25,000 genes.

It contains the codes and instructions that tell the body how to grow and develop, but flaws in the instructions can lead to disease.

Currently, less than 0.2 per cent of the Earth’s species have been sequenced.

The first decoding of a human genome – completed in 2003 as part of the Human Genome Project – took 15 years and cost £2.15 billion ($3bn).

A group of 24 international scientists want to collect and store the genetic codes of all 1.5 million known plants, animals and fungi over the next decade.

The resulting library of life could be used by scientists to find out more about the evolution of species and how to improve our environment.

The £3.4 billion ($4.7bn) project is being described as the ‘most ambitious project in the history of modern biology’.

The results of these studies will be invaluable for understanding how to minimise the chances of people developing exaggerated inflammatory responses, which is now understood as being responsible for some of the symptoms of COVID-19.  

As well as being used in virus detection, medicine and other fields, NGS contributed to the creation of new and powerful biological therapies like antibodies and gene therapies.

In the field of cancer, NGS is becoming the standard analytical method for defining personalised therapeutic treatment. 

The technology has dramatically improved our understanding of the genetic basis of many cancers at a fundamental level and is now often used both for clinical tests for early detection and diagnostics both from tumours and patients’ blood samples. 

In addition to medical applications, NGS has also had a major impact on all of biology as it allows the clear identification of thousands of organisms in almost any kind of sample, critically important in agricultural and biodiversity studies.

Academy Professor Päivi Törmä, Chair of the Millennium Technology Prize Selection Committee, said the future of the technology is enormous.

‘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,’ he added.

This is the first time that the prize has been awarded to more than one recipient for the same innovation, celebrating the significance of collaboration.

Professor Marja Makarow, Chair of Technology Academy Finland said collaboration was an essential part of ensuring positive change for the future. 

‘Next Generation Sequencing is the perfect example of what can be achieved through teamwork and individuals from different scientific backgrounds coming together to solve a problem,’ Makarow said.

The results of these studies will be invaluable for understanding how to minimise the chances of people developing exaggerated inflammatory responses, which is now understood as being responsible for some of the symptoms of COVID-19

The results of these studies will be invaluable for understanding how to minimise the chances of people developing exaggerated inflammatory responses, which is now understood as being responsible for some of the symptoms of COVID-19

‘The technology has also played a key role in helping discover the coronavirus’s sequence, which in turn enabled the creation of the vaccines – itself a triumph for cross-border collaboration – and helped identify new variants of COVID-19.’

In a joint statement, Professor Shankar Balasubramanian and Professor David Klenerman said they were honoured and delighted to win. 

‘This is the first time we’ve received an international prize that recognises our contribution to developing the technology – but it’s not just for us,’ they said.

‘It’s for the whole team that played a key role in the development of the technology and for all those that have inspired us on our journey.’

Of the nine previous winners of the Millennium Technology Prize, three have subsequently gone on to win a Nobel Prize.



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