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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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California-Based Genomics Startup Secures $600 Million in Funding to Deliver $100 Whole Human Genome with Its New High-Throughput, Low-Cost Sequencing Platform

Ultima Genomics says it is emerging from “stealth mode” with millions in fresh capital and technology capable of sequencing whole human genomes for a fraction of the cost

Investors seem to be optimistic that an emerging genetics company has the proprietary solution to sequence a whole human genome for just $100. If true, this is a development that would be of interest to clinical laboratory managers and pathologists.

The company, Ultima Genomics of Newark, Calif., recently announced that it had raised $600 million from the investment community. In a press release last month, the company announced it has “emerged from stealth mode with a new high-throughput, low-cost sequencing platform that delivers the $100 genome.”

The press release goes on to state that Ultima will unleash a new era in genomics-driven discoveries by developing a “fundamentally new sequencing architecture designed to scale beyond conventional approaches, including completely different approaches to flow cell engineering, sequencing chemistry, and machine learning.”

Are we at the cusp of a revolution in genomics? Ultima Genomics’ founder and CEO, Gilad Almogy, PhD, believes so.

“Our architecture is intended for radical scaling, and the $100 genome is merely the first example of what it can deliver,” he said in the press release. “We are committed to continuously drive down the cost of genomic information until it is routinely used in every part of the healthcare system.”

From an Estimated Cost of $3 Billion to $450 in Just 30 Years!

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) has decreased dramatically in cost since research into the technology required got started in the early 1990s with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project. At that time, the cost to sequence the entire human genome was estimated at around $3 billion. Then, in 1998, John Craig Venter created Celera Genomics (now a subsidiary of Quest Diagnostics) and was the first to sequence the whole human genome (his own) and at a significantly lower cost of around $300 million.

The cost continued to drop as technology improved. In 2001, the cost to sequence the whole human genome hovered around $100 million. Twenty years later that cost had dropped to about $450/sequence, according to data compiled by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

When DNA sequencer Illumina announced in 2014 the arrival of the $1,000 genome, the news was expected to put whole genome sequencing on the road to becoming routine, Forbes reported. But that prediction didn’t pan out.

Ultima Genomics’ $100 price point, however, could be game changing. It would make the cost of decoding a human genome affordable for nearly everyone and accelerate the growth of personalized medicine in clinical laboratory diagnostics.

Applied Physics versus Biological Sciences

According to GEN, Almogy brings a tech background to Ultima—his PhD is in applied physics, not the biological sciences. He founded Ultima in 2016 after serving as founder, president, and CEO at Fulfil Solutions, a manufacturer of custom automation robotics systems. At Ultima, his goal is to “unleash the same relentless scaling in sequencing” that was used to drive down the cost of computing power and transform modern life.

“Ultima is the real deal, with good technology,” Raymond McCauley, cofounder and Chief Architect at BioCurious, and Chair of Digital Biology at Singularity Group, told Singularity Hub. “They’ve been working on an Illumina killer for years.”

Gilad Almogy, PhD
 “We designed our new sequencing architecture to scale beyond conventional technologies, and are excited to soon make the UG 100, our first instrument using this architecture, commercially available to more customers,” said Gilad Almogy, PhD (above), Ultima Genomics’ founder and CEO, in a press release. “In the future, we aim to continuously improve our technology, further drive down costs, and increase the scale of genomic information to improve patient outcomes.” At $100/sequence, whole genome sequencing may well become commonly available to improve precision medicine diagnostics and clinical laboratory testing. (Photo copyright: Ultima Genomics.)

In late May, Ultima released “Cost-efficient Whole Genome-Sequencing Using Novel Mostly Natural Sequencing-by-Synthesis Chemistry and Open Fluidics Platform,” a preprint that details the technology underlying Ultima’s UG100 platform. That news was followed by presentations of early scientific results by research institutes currently using Ultima’s technology during the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology 2022 annual meeting.

TechCrunch reported that Ultima’s UG100 sequencing machine and software platform can perform a complete sequencing of a human genome in about 20 hours, with precision comparable to existing options, but does so at a far lower cost per gigabase (Gb), equal to one billion base pairs.

According to the Ultima Genomics website, its breakthroughs include:

  • An open substrate that creates a massive, low-cost reaction surface that delivers many billions of reads while avoiding costly flow cells and complicated fluidics.
  • Novel scalable chemistry that combines the speed, efficiency, and read lengths of natural nucleotides with the accuracy and scalability of endpoint detection.
  • A revolutionary sequencing hardware that uses spinning circular wafers that enable efficient reagent use, zero crosstalk, and ultra-high-speed scanning of large surfaces.

“We may be on the brink of the next revolution in sequencing,” Beth Shapiro, DPhil, an evolutionary molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), told Science. Shapiro is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and an HHMI Investigator at UCSC and Director of Evolutionary Genomics at the UCSC Genomics Institute.

Ultima Genomics maintained a low profile since its founding six years ago. But that changed in May when it announced it had raised $600 million from multiple investors, including:

Affordable Genomics Will Lead to ‘Millions of Tests per Year’

Exact Sciences’ Chairman and CEO Kevin Conroy—whose Wisconsin-based molecular diagnostics company recently entered into a long-term supply agreement for Ultima Genomic’s NGS technologies—believes low-cost genomic sequencing will improve cancer screening and disease monitoring.

“Exact Sciences believes access to differentiated and affordable genomics technologies is critical to providing patients better information before diagnosis and across all stages of cancer treatment,” Conroy said in a press release. “Ultima’s mission to drive down the cost of sequencing and increase the use of genomic information supports our goal to provide accurate and affordable testing options across the cancer continuum. This is particularly important for applications like cancer screening, minimal residual disease, and recurrence monitoring, which could lead to millions of tests per year.”

GEN pointed out that Ultima’s 20-hour turnaround time is fast and its quality on par with its competitors, but that it is Ultima’s $1/Gb price (noted in the preprint) that will set it apart. That cost would be a fraction of Illumina’s NextSeq ($20/Gb) and Element Biosciences’ AVITI ($5/Gb).

Almogy told TechCrunch that Ultima is working with early access partners to publish more proof-of-concept studies showing the capabilities of the sequencing technique, with broader commercial deployment of the technology in 2023. Final pricing is yet to be determined, he said.

If the $100 genome accelerates the pace of medical discoveries and personalized medicine, clinical laboratory scientists and pathologists will be in ideal positions to capitalize on what the executives and investors at Ultima Genomics hope may become a revolution in whole human genome sequencing and genomics. 

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Ultima Genomics Delivers the $100 Genome

Ultima Genomics Claims $100 Full Genome Sequencing after Stealth $600M Raise

A $100 Genome? New DNA Sequencers Could Be a ‘Game Changer’ for Biology, Medicine

Ultima Genomics and Exact Sciences Enter Long-Term Supply Agreement Aimed at Improving Patient Access to Genomic Testing by Driving Down Sequencing Costs

Cost-Efficient Whole Genome-Sequencing Using Novel Mostly Natural Sequencing-by-Synthesis Chemistry and Open Fluidics Platform

Ultima Genomics Bursts onto the Scene Targeting the “$100 Genome”

MGI Announces Commercial Availability of DNBSEQ Sequencers in the United States

The $1,000 Genome Arrives–for Real, This Time

Ultima Genomics Claims the $100 Genome and Raises $600M to Go Even Lower

Discovery That Modern Humans Aren’t Especially Unique, Genetically Speaking, May Lead to Improved Precision Medicine Diagnostics and Therapeutics

Of interest to clinical pathologists is the finding that sequencing the genomes of Humans and Neanderthals revealed a link between severity of COVID-19 infections and Neanderthal DNA

Genetic scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz have learned that just 7%—or less—of our DNA is unique to the human species, with the remainder of our genomes coming from other archaic species, such as Neanderthal and Denisovan.

Why should this matter to pathologists and clinical laboratories? Because a broader knowledge of how DNA evolves may help researchers and healthcare providers better understand how a modern family’s DNA can change over generations. In turn, these insights may lead to precision medicine tools for personalized diagnosis and treatment.

The scientists published their study in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), titled, “An Ancestral Recombination Graph of Human, Neanderthal, and Denisovan Genomes.”

How Genetically Unique Are Humans?

“We find that a low fraction, 1.5 to 7%, of the human genome is uniquely human, with the remainder comprising lineages shared with archaic hominins from either ILS [incomplete lineage sorting] or [genetic] admixture,” wrote the paper’s authors.

To complete their study, the researchers used DNA extracted from fossils of Neanderthals and Denisovans, as well as genetic information from 279 people from various locations around the world.

One goal was to determine what part of a modern human’s genome is truly unique. Though only a small percentage of our entire genome, those portions are important.

“We can tell those regions of the genome are highly enriched for genes that have to do with neural development and brain function,” Richard Green, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz and co-author of the paper, told the Associated Press (AP).

In addition to highlighting what makes modern humans unique as a species, the study also suggests, “That we’re actually a very young species. Not that long ago, we shared the planet with other human lineages,” said Joshua Akey, PhD, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. Akey co-authored the Science Advances research paper.

Human/Neanderthal Genetic Overlap

The genetic research being conducted at the University of California Santa Cruz is just the most recent in a flurry of studies over the past decade investigating the Neanderthal genome. Most of these studies point to the vast similarities between humans and Neanderthals, but also to how similar humans are to each other.

Anna Goldfield, PhD

“Humans have more than three billion letter pairs of DNA in their genome: It turns out less than 2% of that spells out around 20,000 specific genes, or sets of instructions that code for the proteins that make our tissues,” wrote  zooarcheologist Anna Goldfield, PhD (above), Adjunct Instructor Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, Calif., and at the University of California, Davis, in Sapiens. “All humans share the same basic set of genes (we all have a gene for earwax consistency, for example), but there are subtle variations in the DNA spelling of those genes from individual to individual that result in slightly different proteins (sticky earwax versus dry earwax) … Overall, any given human being is about 99.9% similar, genetically, to any other human being,” she added. It is those variations that could lead to precision medicine treatments, personalized drug therapies, and clinical laboratory tests that inform physicians about relevant genetic variations. (Photo copyright: Boston University.)

Practically Everyone Has Neanderthal DNA

Understanding that humans and Neanderthals are 93-98.5% similar genetically may—or may not—come as a surprise. In delving into those similarities and differences researchers are making interesting and potentially important discoveries.

For example, researchers have studied a gene that occurs in both modern humans and Neanderthal fossils that has to do with how the body responds to carcinogenic hydrocarbons, such as smoke from burning wood. Neanderthals were far more sensitive to the carcinogens, but also had more genetic variants, such as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, that could neutralize their effects.

Most modern humans carry some Neanderthal DNA. For some time, scientists thought that Africans likely did not carry Neanderthal DNA, since ancient people tended to migrate out of Africa and met Neanderthals in Europe. More recent research, however, shows that migration patterns were more complex than previously thought, and that the ancient people migrated back to Africa bringing Neanderthal DNA with them.

“Our results show this history was much more interesting and there were many waves of dispersal out of Africa, some of which led to admixture between modern humans and Neanderthals that we see in the genomes of all living individuals today,” Akey told CNN.

Neanderthal DNA and COVID-19

Researchers have found that having Neanderthal DNA may affect the health of modern people who carry it. Perception of pain, immune system function, and even hair color and sleeping patterns have been associated with having Neanderthal DNA.

Scientists have even found a potential link between severe COVID-19 infection and Neanderthal DNA, CNN reported.

In “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe COVID-19 Is Inherited from Neanderthals,” published in the journal Nature, scientists with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Onna-son, Japan, wrote, “Here, we show that the risk is conferred by a genomic segment … that is inherited from Neanderthals and is carried by about 50% of people in South Asia and about 16% of people in Europe today.”

The researchers added, “It turns out that this gene variant was inherited by modern humans from the Neanderthals when they interbred some 60,000 years ago. Today, the people who inherited this gene variant are three times more likely to need artificial ventilation if they are infected by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.”

Of course, these links and associations are preliminary science. John Capra, PhD, Research Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics at the University of California, San Francisco says, “We can’t blame Neanderthals for COVID. That’s a damaging response, and that’s why I want to emphasize so much [that] the social and environmental factors are the real things that people should be worrying about,” he told CNN.

“That said,” he continued, “as a geneticist, I think it is important to know the evolutionary history of the genetic variants we find that do have effects on traits. The effects of Neanderthal DNA traits are detectable, but they’re modest.”

Nevertheless, genetic scientists agree that understanding the genetic roots of disorders could lead to breakthroughs that result in new types of clinical laboratory tests designed to guide precision medicine treatments.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information

An Ancestral Recombination Graph of Human, Neanderthal, and Denisovan Genomes

Just 7% of Our DNA Is Unique to Modern Humans, Study Shows

Mapping Human and Neanderthal Genomes

All Modern Humans Have Neanderthal DNA, New Research Finds

Neanderthal Genes May Be to Blame in Some Severe Coronavirus Cases

How Neanderthal DNA Affects Human Health—Including the Risk of Getting COVID-19

The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe COVID-19 Is Inherited from Neanderthals

International Team of Genetic Researchers Claim to Have Successfully Mapped the Entire Human Genome

With 100% of the human genome mapped, new genetic diagnostic and disease screening tests may soon be available for clinical laboratories and pathology groups

Utilizing technology developed by two different biotechnology/genetic sequencing companies, an international consortium of genetic scientists claim to have sequenced 100% of the entire human genome, “including the missing parts,” STAT reported. This will give clinical laboratories access to the complete 3.055 billion base pair (bp) sequence of the human genome.

Pacific Biosciences (PacBio) of Menlo Park, Calif., and Oxford Nanopore Technologies of Oxford Science Park, United Kingdom (UK), independently developed the technologies that aided the group of scientists, known collectively as the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) Consortium, in the complete mapping of the human genome.

If validated, this achievement could greatly impact future genetic research and genetic diagnostics development. That also will be true for precision medicine and disease-screening testing.

The T2T scientists presented their findings in a paper, titled, “The Complete Sequence of a Human Genome,” published in bioRxiv, an open-access biology preprint server hosted by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Completing the First “End-to-End” Genetic Sequencing

In June of 2000, the Human Genome Project (HGP) announced it had successfully created the first “working draft” of the human genome. But according to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the draft did not include 100% of the human genome. It “consists of overlapping fragments covering 97% of the human genome, of which sequence has already been assembled for approximately 85% of the genome,” an NHGRI press release noted.

“The original genome papers were carefully worded because they did not sequence every DNA molecule from one end to the other,” Ewan Birney, PhD, Deputy Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and Director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), told STAT. “What this group has done is show that they can do it end-to-end. That’s important for future research because it shows what is possible,” he added.

In their published paper, the T2T scientists wrote, “Addressing this remaining 8% of the genome, the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) Consortium has finished the first truly complete 3.055 billion base pair (bp) sequence of a human genome, representing the largest improvement to the human reference genome since its initial release.”

Tale of Two Genetic Sequencing Technologies

Humans have a total of 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs that represent tens of thousands of individual genes. Each individual gene consists of numbers of base pairs and there are billions of these base pairs within the human genome. In 2000, scientists estimated that humans have only 30,000 to 35,000 genes, but that number has since been reduced to just above 20,000 genes.

According to STAT, “The work was possible because the Oxford Nanopore and PacBio technologies do not cut the DNA up into tiny puzzle pieces.”

PacBio used HiFi sequencing, which is only a few years old and provides the benefits of both short and long reads. STAT noted that PacBio’s technology “uses lasers to examine the same sequence of DNA again and again, creating a readout that can be highly accurate.” According to the company’s website, “HiFi reads are produced by calling consensus from subreads generated by multiple passes of the enzyme around a circularized template. This results in a HiFi read that is both long and accurate.”

Oxford Nanopore uses electrical current in its sequencing devices. In this technology, strands of base pairs are pressed through a microscopic nanopore one molecule at a time. Those molecules are then zapped with electrical currents to enable scientists to determine what type of molecule they are and, in turn, identify the full strand.

The T2T Consortium acknowledge in their paper that they had trouble with approximately 0.3% of the genome, but that, though there may be a few errors, there are no gaps.

Karen Miga

“You’re just trying to dig into this final unknown of the human genome,” Karen Miga (above), Assistant Professor in the Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), Associate Director at the UCSC Genomics Institute, and lead author of the T2T Consortium study, told STAT. “It’s just never been done before and the reason it hasn’t been done before is because it’s hard.” (Photo copyright: University of California, Santa Cruz.)

Might New Precision Medicine Therapies Come from T2T Consortium’s Research?

The researchers claim in their paper that the number of known base pairs has grown from 2.92 billion to 3.05 billion and that the number of known genes has increased by 0.4%. Through their research, they also discovered 115 new genes that code for proteins.

The T2T Consortium scientists also noted that the genome they sequenced for their research did not come from a person but rather from a hydatidiform mole, a rare growth that occasionally forms on the inside of a women’s uterus. The hydatidiform occurs when a sperm fertilizes an egg that has no nucleus. As a result, the cells examined for the T2T study contained only 23 chromosomes instead of the full 46 found in most humans.

Although the T2T Consortium’s work is a huge leap forward in the study of the human genome, more research is needed. The consortium plans to publish its findings in a peer-reviewed medical journal. In addition, both PacBio and Oxford Nanopore plan to develop a way to sequence the entire 46 chromosome human genome in the future.

The future of genetic research and gene sequencing is to create technologies that will allow researchers to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that contain longer strings of DNA. Because these SNPs in the human genome correlate with medical conditions and response to specific genetic therapies, advancing knowledge of the genome can ultimately provide beneficial insights that may lead to new genetic tests for medical diagnoses and help medical professionals determine the best, personalized therapies for individual patients.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information

Scientists Say They’ve Finally Sequenced the Entire Human Genome. Yes, All of It.

Researchers Claim They Have Sequenced the Entirety of the Human Genome—Including the Missing Parts

The Complete Sequence of a Human Genome

HiFi Reads for Highly Accurate Long-Read Sequencing

President Clinton Announces the Completion of the First Survey of the Entire Human Genome

Genome the Crowning Achievement of Medicine in 2000

International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium Announces “Working Draft” of Human Genome