Unravelling life

Tuesday 15 August 1995

Human DNA research is about to recieve a shot in the arm following manufacture of a new enzyme

NEW advances in dna sequence research are likely to perk up the bottomlines of medical technology firms in Britain and the us. A boost too, is expected to the worldwide Human Genome Project that seeks to unravel the exact order of the 3 billion molecules comprising the human dna.

In July first week, 3 companies unveiled plans to exploit advances that they claim will not only accelerate the pace of attempts to sequence human dna, but also trim costs. Among the frontrunners is Amersham International, a British company that owns United States Biochemical Corp. The company has decided to bring out a new enzyme that plays a major role in dna sequencing. The new enzyme, derived from a basic development licensed from Harvard University, is likely to make automated dna sequencing more accurate and possibly cheaper.

The us Energy Department's Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University has also licensed Premier American Technologies Corp in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, to develop a new high speed dna sequencing technology. Laboratory sources say that the new technique could, theoretically, sequence the entire 3 billion human dna molecules in 68 days.

A relative small-timer in this business is Hyseq Inc, a company based in Sunnyvale, California. The company claims that its technique -- licensed from the Argonne National Laboratory operated by the University of Chicago -- is 200 times faster than the technology currently used.

According to Western media reports, Amersham International's pioneering enzyme -- called Thermo Sequenase -- holds high hope for the future. It was first manufactured last winter, but products based on it are already being tested at several gene sequencing laboratories, and plans are afoot for an international launch in autumn.

Thermo Sequenase also reportedly offers the additional quality of heat stability, derived from bacteria living in hot springs. Its other major advantage is that it gives a uniform pattern of bands, easier to read than the uneven pattern produced by previous sequencing enzymes.

The big bonanza that awaits firms like Amersham, engaged in the complex task of unravelling the intricacies of dna sequencing is a world market for sequencing enzymes worth us $200 million a year.

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