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Taking DNA Sequencing to the Masses

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Jonathan M. Rothberg fancies himself the Steve Jobs of biotechnology. While much less known than the Apple leader, Dr. Rothberg is also a wealthy entrepreneur with a reputation as a visionary, a masterful promoter and a demanding boss.

But what Dr. Rothberg really means is that he wants to do for DNA sequencing what Mr. Jobs did for computing — spread it to the masses.

Dr. Rothberg is the founder of Ion Torrent, which last month began selling a sequencer it calls the Personal Genome Machine. While most sequencers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are at least the size of small refrigerators, this machine sells for just under $50,000 and is the size of a largish desktop printer.

While not intended for the general public, the machine could expand the use of DNA sequencing from specialized centers to smaller university and industrial labs, and into hospitals and doctors’ offices, helping make DNA sequencing a standard part of medical practice.

“It’s the same 200 people around the world who buy all these machines,” Dr. Rothberg, who has a Ph.D. in biology, said of the sequencing centers. “I want to make this ubiquitous. I want to move this into the clinic.”

Rather than culturing a bug to identify what is infecting a patient, for instance, a hospital might determine its DNA sequence. Massachusetts General Hospital is already sequencing 130 genes from patient tumor samples, looking for mutations that might predict which drugs will work best. It has won an Ion Torrent machine in a contest and hopes to put it to that use.

“I think all the other technologies could not be easily implemented in a lab like ours,” said Dr. John Iafrate, director of molecular diagnostics at the hospital. Ion Torrent, he added, would “democratize” sequencing.

While most experts agree that sequencing will become commonplace in medicine, some say they think Dr. Rothberg is overselling his machine. Like the early Apple II of Mr. Jobs, it is too puny for many tasks, including sequencing the entire genome of a person.

“It dies on its output,” said David I. Smith, a director of technology assessment at Mayo Clinic.
 
 

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