An umbrella term that applies to several automated technologies for determining the chemical sequence of DNA or RNA, next generation sequencing has been a standard part of genetic research and clinical medicine for decades. A propulsive force in the creation of new medical treatments, it will likely remain at the forefront of groundbreaking R&D for decades to come.
Due to its longstanding ubiquity as a laboratory methodology, next generation sequencing (NGS) might feel like it has always been around. But the birth of NGS in the early 2000s was nothing short of a technological revolution during a time when genetic sequencing was all the rage, both in clinical circles and in popular culture. Just ask the scientist that the European biotech industry news authority Labiotech.eu calls “the man behind next-generation sequencing”: Nick McCooke.
A leading pioneer in the development of NGS, Nick McCooke joined the innovative biotech firm Solexa in 2000. At the time, the Human Genome Project was in the final stages of its trailblazing project to map the entire human genome and the whole world was buzzing with the tremendous potential of this breakthrough.
Despite this fervor, Nick McCooke notes that Solexa still had a full stock of 3730 Sanger genetic sequencers with no serious plans to evolve beyond this standard, manual, laboratory tool. He had recently sold his own biotech US company and returned to the United Kingdom to emerge as Solexa’s chief researcher and CEO.
While many figures played a key role in the development of NGS, most experts give Nick McCooke a tremendous amount of credit for the birth of this incredibly influential and beneficial genetic sequencing technique. Assembling a highly inventive team of industry experts, he led them in the creation of an entirely new sequencing method that employed automated technology to read the chemical sequence of nucleic acid at incredibly high speeds.
Although lab technicians still use the 3730 Sanger sequencer today, it is almost exclusively employed to analyze short DNA sequences for projects that do not face strict time constraints. By in large, NGS sequencing is the preferred choice of scientists around the world who regard it as a foundational element of precision biotech research and clinical application.
Nick McCooke credits a small group of Cambridge researchers with the creation of NGS as a theoretical concept. At its heart, the idea was relatively straightforward. By employing digital automation, scientists would be able to massively parallelize the sequencing process, getting far more accomplished in a considerably shorter time period.
The results of the Solexa team immediately exceeded all expectation. While the existing ABI 3730 sequencer could process 96 strands of DNA in tandem on its array, the first NGS instrument by Solexa had approximately 40 million array interrogation sites. It quickly became apparent that this innovation had the potential to exponentially reduce both the processing time and the overall cost of genetic sequencing.
Nick McCooke remembers all the hard work that went into the development of early NGS technology. It took a tremendous amount of trial and error, with the team scrapping many initial R&D approaches, which failed despite its best efforts. When its attempts to analyze single DNA molecules proved ineffective, it partnered with the biotech company Illumina to employ the novel bridge amplification system. McCooke acknowledges that without access to Illumina technology, Solexa’s NGS project would have collapsed.
By 2005, the Solexa NGS platform proved successful when the team sequenced a small genome from the virus phiX-74s. As the tremendous value of this technology became apparent, Solexa went public with a NASDAQ listing. Less than two years later, Illumina had acquired Solexa and began applying NGS methods to drive wide array of important medical innovations.