Quicker, Cheaper DNA Sequencing Goal of UH Profs with $4.2 Million NIH Grant

Research at Houston's VisiGen Biotechnologies to Expand Upon Interplay Between Genetics and Disease 

Houston recently got a shot in the arm toward its goal of becoming the next biotech hub in the United States with a $4.2 million NIH grant awarded to VisiGen Biotechnologies, a local company created by University of Houston researchers working on a new process to sequence the human genome.

Awarded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NHGRI "Near-Term Development for Genome Sequencing" grants are meant to support research to sequence a human-sized genome at a 100-fold lower cost than is currently possible. The initial goal is to lower the cost to of this procedure $100,000, enabling researchers to sequence genomes of potentially thousands of human subjects involved in studies to identify genes that contribute to certain common, yet complex, diseases. A more long-term goal is to cut the whole-genome sequencing cost to $1,000 that would provide for applications in routine medical care, allowing doctors to tailor diagnoses, treatments and preventative measures to in individual's unique genetic profile. Currently, it costs approximately $10 million to sequence three billion base pairs, which is the amount of DNA found in human and other mammalian genomes.

With its roots at UH, VisiGen is one of Houston's leading-edge BioNano Technology companies and holds hope for enabling new platform technologies to revolutionize biomolecular sequencing. VisiGen's research has led to the development of a new technology for direct molecular sensing that is projected to sequence an entire genome - the genetic code in a person's DNA - in less than 24 hours at a reasonable cost, thereby enabling personalized medicine. This and other developing technologies coming out of this group may soon offer physicians a quicker, more thorough way to assess genetically linked risk factors for such things as diseases and adverse drug reactions.

VisiGen's President and CEO Susan Hardin, an adjunct professor of biology and biochemistry at UH, is the principal investigator on the NHGRI project. Her UH partners at VisiGen and collaborators on this grant include James Briggs, an associate professor of biology and biochemistry, chemical engineering and chemistry; Costa Colbert, associate professor of biology and biochemistry; Xiaolian Gao, a professor of chemistry, biology and biochemistry; Michael Rea, a professor of biology and biochemistry; David Tu, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of biology and biochemistry; and Richard Willson, an associate professor of chemical engineering, biology and biochemistry.

In particular, the UH researchers at VisiGen are developing a sequencing system where polymerase (an enzyme used to synthesize DNA) and nucleotides (the molecules forming the basic modular structure of DNA's double helix) act together as direct molecular DNA base-identity sensors. The resultant interactions emit a signature detectable in real time. During the course of this three-year project, DNA samples will be processed in massively parallel arrays, working toward a goal to sequence large genomes in less than a day for approximately $1,000. VisiGen's technology will permit sufficient oversampling that will produce redundant data, thereby minimizing errors.

Developing this system will allow VisiGen researchers to identify pathogens and enable comprehensive genome analysis, with a specific aim to design, build and test the next generation single-molecule DNA sequencing instrument. Subsequently, this instrument will be used for beta testing by various Houston researchers, whose feedback will be incorporated into future phases of technology development. Such strides will eventually increase the scope and scale of research that addresses genomic contributions to such common diseases as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.