Biotech, Diagnostics

Illumina launching ‘PopArray’ consortium to develop population health genomics test

A slide from Illumina at Mayo Clinic's Individualizing Medicine Conference that outlines its "PopArray" goals.

A slide from Illumina at Mayo Clinic’s Individualizing Medicine Conference that outlines its “PopArray” goals.

Illumina is building out a new consortium that will pool and plumb a huge amount of genomic data on a population health level – to build a new product. The scale, if they pull this off, is quite large – it’s chasing triple the volume of the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative.

The informally dubbed “PopArray” Consortium plans to gather at least 3 million genetic samples from companies and like-minded organizations, the company said, trying to drum up support for the project at this week’s Individualizing Medicine Conference at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

The idea is to help Illumina create a new population-scale, multiethnic genotyping test – as outlined in the slide above. The 750,000-SNP microarray test could have applications in pharmacogenomics, biomarker analysis and genomic risk screening. The new microarray will be modeled after Illumina’s MEGA project – another consortium-driven array.

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With this effort, Illumina is chasing low-cost, global sequencing: It’s opting for microarray technology, a blunter tool than the costly and hyper-detailed next-generation sequencing that the company’s built its reputation on. Why?

Microarray is cheaper.

“What we really want to do with this is find a way to use a lot of the knowledge that’s coming out of large population sequencing projects and bring that back to microarray technology that can be used on very, very large samples, very very economically,” said Chris Black, a sales specialist at Illumina who presented information on PopArray at the Mayo Clinic conference.

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Illumina is appealing to companies and public health organizations that can provide 150,000 samples – or $4.35 million. It’s a costly proposition that’s really only viable to a fairly small handful of organizations – few companies or research institutes will be able to quickly pony up the requisite samples or cash.

Here’s how Illumina is sweetening the deal to get other organizations on board: Consortium members can customize 50,000 SNPs that’ll show up in their microarray tests. The price to analyze each PopArray sample will be rather low, at $19 to $29 apiece – quite a stretch from the so-called $1,000 genome.

“We are also packaging a number of instrumentation discounts for consortium members,” Black said.

After all, the genomics giants are all working to get a grasp on the genetics of population health, but it remains a challenge to meaningfully – and economically – sequence DNA on a mass scale. Next-generation sequencing may be too costly in the immediate future, but microarray technologies could help speed along gene sequencing on a population scale.

PopArray

Illumina hasn’t yet publicly announced participants in the consortium or, really, the consortium itself – but I wouldn’t be surprised if organizations like the Broad Institute and Mayo Clinic joined. Beyond already having ties to Illumina, these sorts of organizations could certainly have use for an inexpensive tool that can screen vast swaths of multiethnic samples – plus discounts on powerful sequencing technology.

 

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