615 Human Genomes? Another Cheap, Fast Sequencing Machine? Complete Genomics, Illumina Steal Show at Healthcare Meeting

Most of the major life sciences reporters in the U.S. are gathered this week in San Francisco, so you know what that means—most of us missed the big story.

While pretty much everyone here at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference—me included—was listening and learning about the latest hot new drug or device, the real news yesterday came from the world of super-fast, super-cheap gene sequencing. Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics (NASDAQ: GNOM) said yesterday it has agreed to sequence 615 complete human genomes for the Institute for Systems Biology, the nonprofit research center in Seattle led by biotech pioneer Leroy Hood. The Institute wants the genomes for its research into neurodegenerative diseases.

Not to be outdone, San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the market leader in gene sequencing instruments, unveiled its latest iteration. This tool, dubbed MiSeq, is a desktop-sized sequencing machine that can be bought for about $125,000, a fraction of previous devices’ costs, and do a lot of heavy duty sequencing for a few hundred bucks per run. It’s a direct answer to the aggressive move of its competitor, Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE), which has generated a lot of buzz lately with its cheap and fast new tool it acquired from Ion Torrent Systems.

I don’t really have time today to let these moves sink in, because it’s kind of rude to bail out on meetings scheduled weeks ago. I can always follow up for Xconomy readers later. But it’s worth remembering that it took $3 billion and about 13 years just to sequence one genome, and as of a couple years ago, it was so expensive and time-consuming, only about a dozen or so complete genomes were sequenced. Today, a company tells the world it will sequence 615 complete genomes for a single customer, and Wall Street gives it a paltry 5 percent stock lift, and reporters Tweet and move on. There are certainly huge computing challenges in managing all this data, and no guarantee that biologists will figure out how to do anything useful will all this new information on what’s happening in individual people at the genomic level. But days like yesterday remind me that a mentor once told me that a journalist ought to be skeptical, yet never lose his sense of wonder.

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