Indian-born British chemist Shankar Balasubramanian recently won the Millennium Technology Prize, instituted by the Technology Academy Finland, for development of revolutionary DNA sequencing techniques. Vanita Srivastava caught up with him to understand the award winning genetic sequencing work that has widely impacted the fields of genomics, medicine and biology.
[Shankar Balasubramanian is a Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, a Senior Group Leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He won the one million euro prize jointly with David Klenerman.]
Q. Tell us about your genome sequencing technology and how it has impacted the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A. Prof David Klenerman and I are co-inventors of Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS). The technology was fully developed at Solexa into an integrated, commercial system, then further improved by the team in Illumina. This technology has enabled fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing, which is the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s make-up.
During the pandemic, NGS has been providing an effective way to study SARS-CoV-2’s genetic make-up and help us track the viral mutations, which continues to be a great global concern. This work has also helped the creation of multiple vaccines now being administered worldwide and is critical to the creation of new vaccines against new dangerous viral strains.
Q. India is now a hotspot of coronavirus mutants. How can this technology help address problems relating to this?
A. By studying and understanding the genetic make-up of the new mutant using our technology, we can identify its potential as a new threat by knowing how it differs from the other variants. Further, I hope that our technology can be useful in sequencing the genomes of people who have had COVID and trying to get an understanding of why some people are severely affected by the disease and others are asymptomatic. This approach could identify risk factors in specific people that may also be applicable to other viruses in years to come.
Q. What other potential use does this technology have?
A. The technology has a huge transformative impact in the fields of genomics, medicine and biology. It is being applied widely in the basic research of living systems, as DNA and RNA are fundamental to cells and organisms. Aspects of living systems include genetics, the expression of genes, the structure of DNA in the nucleus and differences between cells, to name but a few.
The technology is beginning to be applied in medicine, particularly in the areas of cancer and rare diseases. The applications in medicine will grow as we sequence more human genomes allowing the idea of personalised medicine where diseases are more optimally treated by understanding the individual and the drugs that are used are designed to correct the molecular pathway that has gone in a specific person. It will also be used in agriculture to breed species with desired properties.
Over the past few years, there have been tremendous advances in cancer, both with therapy and also detection and diagnosis. Over the coming decades, the goal is to use this technology to help make some cancers become manageable diseases because they are detected sufficiently early and it’s clear what has to be done. This could also hopefully be extended to other complex diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Q. What are the challenges to personalised genomic medicine?
A. Developing an effective and efficient infrastructure for sequencing patients on a large scale and using their genetic profile to help make the decisions in regard to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of their disease is currently the biggest challenge.