The British genetics boss on the frontline of the coronavirus epidemic
Oxford Nanopore chief executive Gordon Sanghera. The start-up has been drafted in to research coronavirus
Credit: Nigel Chapman Photography
Zika, Ebola, Yellow Fever, H1N1 Swine Flu and now coronavirus: for one rapidly growing British company, outbreaks of the world’s deadliest pathogens represent an extraordinary call to arms.
While the rest of us cower and don surgical masks, Oxford Nanopore dispatches its handheld devices into the epicentre of epidemics, helping decode the DNA of deadly viruses and track their mutation and spread.
China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in Beijing, is the latest to deploy Nanopore technology – putting 200 of the company’s Minion devices, which are the size and shape of old clamshell mobile telephones, on the frontline of efforts to roll back the coronavirus.
The advantage of the Minion over gene sequencing rivals, says Oxford Nanopore’s CEO Gordon Sanghera, is that they are both portable and rapid. “We are the only platform in the world that can give you live real-time genomic information,” he says. “The ability to look at it [the virus genome] in real time and contain or control it, all of that will evolve from data generation that no-one else can do.”
The deployment of Minion devices will allow global health authorities to track the virus in unprecedented ways, says Nick Loman, professor of Microbial Genomics and Bioinformatics at the University of Birmingham: “You can see the evolution of the virus, how it’s spreading, the rate of growth. With Nanopore you have the ability to get instrumentation in lots of different places, with lots of different groups sharing virus genome sequences.”
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Such information, when collated, could reveal infections with DNA sequences that are very similar, for example, allowing them to be traced back to so-called “super-spreaders”. Detailed genomic information could also help British authorities work out whether local cases of the disease have been picked up in Asia, or have been passed from person to person in the UK.
“For that we need to see as much genomic data published as possible,” says Loman. “You want a representative sample from genomes from each site of infection, across time ,and published on the internet.” Nanopore’s devices, he says, facilitate that because they are “portable, rapid and cheap”.
The coronavirus represents a particularly dramatic use case of the DNA decoding devices manufactured by Nanopore – a spinout from Oxford University – whose latest funding round of £109m six weeks ago valued it at £1.6bn.
A quarter of that raise was primary investment, made directly to the company. But three-quarters was secondary investment, with existing shareholders selling their stakes to new investors, with the price at £58 a share. Those sales included stakes in the company held by Neil Woodford – the fund manager whose suspended Equity Income Fund and Woodford Patient Capital Trust (WPCT) once owned a combined 12.4pc of Oxford Nanopore.
WPCT is now managed by Schroders as the UK Public Private Trust, where Oxford Nanopore, at almost 15pc, is one of the top holdings.
“It’s unfortunate the Woodford Fund is where it is,” says Sanghera. “From a personal perspective, it’s distressing for me because Neil is a friend of mine, but from a business perspective we’ve often refreshed our shareholder base in the 15 years we’ve been going. It is distressing when it’s such a fantastic and enthusiastic shareholder who is no longer available to us, but that’s business, we have a plan and a strategy and we’re executing on that.”
That strategy includes the opening last year of a factory to produce various devices which, as well as the portable, small capacity Minion, include a bigger capacity device known as the Promethion. The factory will eventually be largely automated, says Sanghera, with “robotic handling and silent running which will have a direct impact on efficiencies and thus on yields and margins”.
The factory, he says, will allow the company to produce enough devices to hit “one billion dollars in revenues in sales in five years time”. Its 2018 revenues were $43m (£33m).
It is still not breaking even. “We anticipate break even in the next couple of years,” says Sanghera. “But the balance is growth versus revenue. We could reduce growth and hit profitability in 2021, but that’s not necessarily the right thing to do. The right thing for the business to do will be rapid expansion into new markets new territories, new projects.”
Somewhere in the same timeline, perhaps one to three years away, is a stock market floatation which, he says, will value the company at anywhere between three and 10 billion dollars. “The genomics space is very hot,” he says.
To achieve that valuation, though, Sanghera thinks that the company will have to clear several hurdles. It will have to carve out a reputation for delivering steady revenues (DNA decoding, he says, makes Oxford Nanopore “just too complex as a tech story”). Revenue is why the new factory, and regular sales of its kit, is so important.
He also wants to demonstrate a couple of end-user applications – he plucks shrimp farming from the air as an example – where DNA sequencing can help productivity in previously unthought of ways. The third hurdle before flotation, is to “take some market share from BGI and Illumina”.
Those two companies – Chinese and American respectively – are Oxford Nanopore’s major competitors in the DNA decoding world. And while Nanopore has made its name with the handheld Minion device pictured below, Promethion is helping it edge into rival territory, dominated by Illumina, involving mass sequencing of hundreds of thousands of people in a general population.
Oxford Nanopore's Minion device is used to take readings of DNA
On December 10th, just weeks before China reported the coronavirus to the World Health Organisation, Oxford Nanopore signed a multi-million pound deal (it refuses to reveal the exact sum) with the United Arab Emirates, to sequence the genome of up to a million of its residents.
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Such “pop-gen” (population-genetic) studies – such as the UK’s 100,000 genomes project – allow mass DNA analysis across entire countries to help identify rare diseases, and initiate the delivery of personalised treatments.
“It’s the first time we competed head to head with Illumina and it’s the first pop-gen order that’s gone to us,” says Sanghera. “That’s a significant milestone for us.”
The competition with Illumina is particularly intense because the two companies use different methods to decode DNA. Nanopore technology uses electric currents to detect the four different chemical bases on a strand of DNA as it is fed through a miniscule hole. Illumina marks the same bases with dyes then uses a machine to read the dye markers. Illumina’s advocates say its technology is more accurate. Nanopore says it can read longer strands of DNA.
“We believe we can compete on accuracy,” says Sanghera, adding that the UAE dataset will “put that debate to bed”. “In the hands of our customers the accuracy question doesn’t really come up.”
Which is just as well because currently their most urgent customers are the staff of China’s CDC. “When we launched the Minion, the idea was that when you have an outbreak, it will be possible to do real time genomic surveillance. That is fundamentally game changing,” says Sanghera.
“It’s humbling that something we started 15 years ago is actually useful. We spent a lot of time wondering if anyone was going to buy it. Does anybody care? Are we deluded? I want the Coronavirus to go away. If there’s any way we can help with that, good.”