PERSPECTIVE3-5 min to read

The MinION helping to fight the next pandemic

We speak to Gordon Sanghera, CEO of Oxford Nanopore Technologies, about how its ground-breaking MinION device could help change the future of medicine.

07-07-2023
DNA sequencing in a lab

Authors

David Brett
Investment Writer

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The full transcript of the podcast can be found below.

[00:00:07.930] - David Brett

Welcome to the Investor Download the podcast about the themes driving markets and the economy now and in the future. I'm your host, David Brett.

[00:00:22.210] - David Brett

In April 2015, Ebola was threatening to spiral out of control in West Africa.

[00:00:30.570] - News footage

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is spiralling out of control. An outbreak of Ebola tops 700 deaths. Now in West Africa. There is a growing risk in West Africa, where the disease proves to be too much for the government to handle. Ebola is a disease that knows no mercy. Treating the disease is complicated because it's rare, it's contagious and it's deadly.

[00:00:53.030] - David Brett

A year on from the original outbreak, people were desperate for a breakthrough that would help them control the spread of the virus.

[00:01:02.050] - News footage

A state of emergency in Sierra Leone, security forces have been called in to help quarantine Ebola victims and defend aid workers from attacks. For weeks, they've been asking for outside help. Too many sick people for the overrun healthcare centres to handle, too few workers to track down those who are still out there. It's the gates of hell, going into that treatment ward and knowing that the ODS are you're going to come out in a body bag?

[00:01:27.570] - David Brett

Help was on its way, but there.

[00:01:28.990] - News footage

Are teams from around the globe who were on the move or on high alert to contain this current outbreak.

[00:01:34.490] - David Brett

But when researchers arrived with nothing but some relatively small suitcases, few were optimistic that the spread of the virus could be contained. The suitcases were opened, their contents, including laptops and other standard lab equipment, were unpacked and a makeshift laboratory was formed.

[00:01:55.510] - David Brett

So far, so ordinary. That was, until a small, almost innocuous device was taken out of one of the compartments. As it would happen, the device, a portable DNA sequencer called the MinION, would help change the course of the epidemic.

[00:02:14.730] - David Brett

The MinION allowed scientists to instantly sequence Ebola genomes from newly diagnosed patients and chart the source of new infections, helping shape the development of a novel vaccine. The game-changer was the device's size, no bigger than a Mars bar, which means it could be used in the field, making it a valuable tool for researchers and clinicians who need to analyse results quickly and efficiently. Crucial when a disease is spreading quickly. The MinION was made by a small UK company called Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

[00:02:50.650] - Gordon Sanghera

So Oxford Nanopore was founded actually, let's go all the way back in 2005 as a spin out from the University.

[00:02:59.460] - David Brett

Of Oxford that's Gordon Sanghira, the CEO of Oxford Nanopore.

[00:03:04.630] - Gordon Sanghera

And the technology we acquired from the university was a new method of measurement and that's electronic single molecule measurement.

[00:03:16.010] - David Brett

The new method of measurement used in the MinION device is a technique called nanopore sequencing. What that is and how it's evolving, how we combat diseases and illnesses, is coming up in part two of the show.

[00:03:31.730] - Announcer

On Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts you're listening to the Investor Download.

[00:03:38.890] - David Brett

So what is nanopore sequencing? Here comes the science.

[00:03:44.550] - Gordon Sanghera

So we take that biology, that cell biology, out of a living system, and we put it into an electronic measurement platform. As we send the DNA down the hole, we are looking at native complete, high definition, full colour DNA, so we can see all the things that you miss with your grainy black and white picture.

[00:04:10.330] - David Brett

The hole Sanghera refers to is a doughnut shaped protein whose hole is just a billionth of a metre wide, otherwise known as a nanopore. For perspective, the diameter of a typical human hair is about 100,000 nanometres. When the pore is unblocked, ions can flow freely through it, creating a measurable electric current. But if something gets in the way, say a strand of DNA, that current collapses. The four bases of DNA A, C, G and T, each change the current through the nanopore in different ways. So as a DNA strand threads its way through the pore, the rising and falling current reveals its sequence.

[00:04:58.360] - Gordon Sanghera

Pretty much, DNA is a source code of all living systems. So being able to interrogate and understand how our source code is evolving and changing over time in reaction to our environment as we age, is really important and underpins our understanding of how to monitor and diagnose diseases. Whether we're thinking about human health, plant pathogens, environmental disasters, we see from time to time. DNA sequencing is the method by which we read these source codes.

[00:05:39.790] - David Brett

Now, what most of us probably remember about DNA comes from Jurassic Park.

[00:05:45.010] - Announcer

Where do you get a hundred million year old dinosaur blood?

[00:05:53.150] - Gordon Sanghera

What? What? Oh, Mr. DNA. Where did you come from? From your blood. Just one drop of your blood contains billions of strands of DNA, the building blocks of life.

[00:06:05.910] - David Brett

But while the theoretical dinosaur DNA had to be shipped back to a lab with expensive sequences the size of mainframe computers, that took weeks or months to deliver results, not to mention the extortionate cost both financial.

[00:06:20.310] - Film footage

I own an island off the coast of Costa Rica. I've leased it from the government and I've spent the last five years setting up a kind of biological preserve. Really spectacular, spared no expense.

[00:06:32.040] - David Brett

And human.

[00:06:40.670] - David Brett

Oxford Nanopore's technology allows for much more mobile and speedier delivery.

[00:06:46.430] - Gordon Sanghera

DNA sequencing, or the access of our source code today, is somewhat akin to mainframe computing in the early 70s, early 80s, late seventiss. And we at Oxford Nanapore have developed a series of platforms that will bring about a much more affordable, accessible, low cost way of accessing DNA information. In the same way as we saw the revolution from mainframe to desktop to handheld computing in your iPhone today.

[00:07:22.830] - Speaker 2

Five years on, from MinION's decisive role in the ebola crisis, its mobility and low cost would prove a useful weapon in the fight against COVID-19.

[00:07:34.170] - Gordon Sanghera

Yeah. And this is not just a pandemic platform. In fact, it's the complete opposite. But it's a nice way to describe why DNA sequencing is so important. As we all saw, a new species emerged, SARS COVID, and the way it mutated and changed over time. And was it a variant? Did it have mutations that were variants of concern from a health perspective? Was it more virulent, was it less virulent? All these things come from the continual changing of the biology of something like the COVID virus. And it's really important to understand how these changes track and trend and whether they become benign or more dangerous to us all. And so it became clear, I think, in some respects, biology mutational biology 101 was learnt by everybody as a result of the pandemic. And that's a really good example of how public health laboratories adopted our platform and over 85 countries and 2 million COVID genomes were sequenced. So four genomes read on nanopore sequencing. What's quite significant within that stat is that a lot of them were in low middle income countries. So for the first time we are seeing countries that don't have tens of millions of dollars to build infrastructure, to have sequencing power, being able to enter the game, and there is going to be another pandemic, there's no doubt about that.

[00:09:32.220] - Gordon Sanghera

And having these distributed, decentralised real time surveillance networks is how we are going to prevent the next pandemic. But more broadly, it illustrates why it's important for us to interrogate and understand DNA sequencing of the things around us, the things in us, our own bodies and everything living.

[00:09:58.350] - David Brett

It's worth noting that ONT's technology is not the only sequencing technology available. And different tech may be better suited for different applications. For example, Oxford Nanopore's major competitor, Illumina's sequencing technology is known for its high accuracy and is often used for applications such as whole genome sequencing. PacBio sequencing technology is known for its long reads. But the next challenge, according to Sanghera, is getting these types of sequencing devices into as many people's hands as possible, particularly in the fight against the next pandemic.

[00:10:37.890] - Gordon Sanghera

We can provide these instruments for free, so affordable and accessible, you no longer need a multimillion dollar capex budget and they stream that DNA information live in real time. Post pandemic, there's a lot of talk about how we prevent the next pandemic and there is a lot of networks pan-Asian network, for example, the China CDC, Japan, who are putting out distributed centres of excellence using nanopore sequencing so that they can be continually monitoring and looking for anything that's unusual. And when you see that, you're alerted more quickly. Now, in order for that to work properly, that's going to have to be a global network at some point. And rather than pockets of good practice, which is what we're seeing right now.

[00:11:44.980] - Speaker 2

But where there is the potential for all this personal and ubiquitous data to be gathered, there's also question marks over ethics regulations and what next for the technology. And that's coming up in the final part of the show.

[00:12:05.310] - Announcer

Get in touch with us by email at schroderspodcasts@schroders.com or visit our website, schroders.com/theinvestordownload.

[00:12:16.120] - David Brett

As with any technology, there are ethical considerations that need to be taken into account, such as data privacy and informed consent. Sanghera, while acutely aware of the potential conflicts, says the argument, as ever, will be nuanced.

[00:12:32.300] - Gordon Sanghera

As with all new technologies, we need regulatory frameworks to keep up for governments and regulators to provide the right frameworks and tram lines to work in. But you can split the world into sort of kind of two distinct domains. When it comes to sequencing humans and interrogating the source codes of human beings and population scale genomics is referred to the ethics and the frameworks need to be very stringent. At the other end, if we're just interrogating wastewater or somebody's lungs or a fish that's contaminated as an unusual disease, we're really interrogating the biology of the invading species, not the actual, in the case of lungs, not the human itself. You're just looking at the viruses or the bacteria that are causing infections in the lung. So that's more around communication and education and genetic counselling. If you're being tested in intensive care for a respiratory infection where they scan the sample and look for all the pathogens that could be driving the infection, you're not actually investigating or interrogating the individual's DNA. So there is a distinction there, but there is a lot of education and one of the things that we're very excited and keen on is getting the MinION, in particular the device I showed earlier into education.

[00:14:18.890] - Gordon Sanghera

So in exactly the same way as youngsters aren't afraid of using tablets and iPhones and computers because they've always been around, we want to make the understanding of all the different types of DNA from a very early age. And there will be really interesting innovations that will come from having cheap, affordable, accessible DNA/RNA source codes of all living things on the planet.

[00:14:50.150] - David Brett

But if used correctly...

[00:14:51.770] - Gordon Sanghera

it certainly can do more than the existing technologies. But there's always going to be a limitation. But we have managed to get it onto the space station and it's running up on the space station as we speak, and NASA are going to take it hopefully on the next mission to Mars. So it's doing okay so far. So it's very exciting, no doubt about that. But we're in this technology validation phase from which we will start to see that sort of clinical routine utility coming over a matter of time in the medium term. So the basic underlying technology today is equivalent in accuracy to the existing mainframe systems, if you like. As with most disruptive technologies, whether you think about the initial mobile phones and their quality and their range or digital photography and the pixelation and the quality there, we have been on a journey. We launched the product when it was good enough, and over the last six or seven years we have continued to improve and enhance the technology such that we are now substantially equivalent and we can catch all of these single point mutations that the existing technologies have, but we can also add so much more content and colour.

[00:16:30.710] - Gordon Sanghera

So we're now at a point where we are equivalent and actually moving past the existing technologies because we provide so much more richness of content.

[00:16:40.440] - David Brett

Sanghera says in future, that can mean pinpointing causes of genetic disorders in adults which might be identified in offspring, not to mention uncovering developmental disorders in neurodegenerations such as Alzheimer's and shedding light in dark corners of illnesses such as cancer. Things you cannot do with existing technologies.

[00:17:02.810] - Gordon Sanghera

In the next five to ten years, the ability to be able to sample, access and read DNA in real time will be as big a shift as we saw with the capabilities and the revolution of the Information Age. So we're entering the genomic Information age and whilst the Internet of Things, according to garner something like 32 billion interconnected devices, the Internet of Living Things will be ushered in by real time sequencing. And right now we are the first mover and the only company who has these real time devices. What do I mean by that? During the pandemic, not only were we checking which variants of COVID we had through lateral flow tests, but we were also starting to measure effluent wastewater. And that holistic approach to measuring everything that makes us up, so our source code, everything that's in us there are over 1 trillion passengers in our gut that make up our microbiome. We haven't even started to understand how that has an impact on health and disease. And it does. So what's in us, what makes us, what's in the environment, what we eat, pathogens in plants, pathogens in animals, that whole end to end holistic understanding of the source code of all living things, which ties into the company's ambition.

[00:18:53.670] - Gordon Sanghera

The analysis of anything by anyone, anywhere, is where this opens up and shifts towards. And we've talked a lot about human health today. Let me give you an example of where this could have a huge impact in industry. Measuring DNA or RNA in real time can have a profound impact on biologics manufacture. And we are doing some really interesting, we're entering some interesting partnerships with experts, domain experts in biologics quality control, quality assurance, contamination control management during the manufacturing processing of, for example, RNA vaccines. And that is another example of how real time DNA/RNA information could have a huge impact on the quality, the purity and the efficiency of that manufacturing process. So this really will emanate and impact pretty much all corners of our lives in the five to ten year time frame.

[00:20:13.800] - David Brett

Just before we go, I hope you found Gordon as engaging as we did. But if you want to hear the full unabridged interview, along with a special guest, Investment Manager Harry Raikes, please head to Schroders' YouTube channel.

[00:20:29.420] - David Brett

Well, that was the show we very much hope you enjoyed it. If you want to find out more, cheque out our website schroders.com/thenvestordownload. You can also get in contact with us about anything in the show or ideas for future shows at schroderspodcasts@schroders.com. Please remember to subscribe to us at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. And don't forget to leave a review. We're now doing one show a week which will be available every Thursday from 05:00 p.m. UK time. Thanks very much for listening, but above all, keep safe and go well. Cheers.

[00:21:06.530] - Speaker 9

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Authors

David Brett
Investment Writer

Topics

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