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The potential applications of DNA analysis technologies are broad. DNA sequencing technology is routinely used in research science.

Oxford Nanopore's MinION sensor © Oxford Nanopore Technologies

It is becoming more commonly used as a tool for personalised medicine, and there are numerous other applications, too – in agriculture and crop science, food safety and security, and defence – meaning that DNA sequencing could change many aspects of the way we live.

Existing DNA sequencing technologies have improved dramatically since the early Sanger Sequencing methods. Taking a whole human genome as an example, the cost to a researcher of acquiring this data has fallen from tens of millions of dollars in 2004 to tens of thousands today. However, challenges still exist in the practicalities of the current technologies, which focus on delivering large quantities of data to users who may also seek answers to more specific questions. There is a need for technologies that can deliver more user friendly, accessible technologies with greater value for money and broader applications.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT), a University of Oxford spin-out company, is developing technologies designed to meet these needs. The company is developing devices based on nanopore sensing, in which an array of nano-scale ‘holes’ are set in an electrically resistant artificial membrane similar to a cell membrane. A current is passed through each nanopore, and when molecules such as proteins or DNA pass through or near the nanopores, they create characteristic disruptions in current. Measurement of that current makes it possible to identify the molecule in question.

This technique was named ‘stochastic sensing’ by Professor Hagan Bayley, one of the earliest academic innovators in nanopore sensing, who joined the Department of Chemistry in 2003 to carry out fundamental research into membrane proteins (proteins that form ‘channels’ of various kinds through the cell membrane). In 2006, the Bayley group demonstrated for the first time that all four individual DNA bases could be distinguished by pulling single strands of DNA through a nanopore, and in 2009 -10 the group showed (also for the first time) that a nanopore could be engineered to sense several different DNA bases simultaneously.

Hagan Bayley founded Oxford Nanopore Technologies in 2005 on the University of Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park. In the following years Oxford Nanopore forged collaborations with leading nanopore researchers at other institutions and built a world-class internal research, development and production team, giving the company its market-leading position in nanopore sensing.

In 2014 the company introduced MinION, a pocket-sized USB-compatible molecular sensing device for an early group of users in the MinION Access Programme (MAP). The several hundred MAP participants are researching MinION for a variety of applications: tracking bacteria in a hospital setting, species identification in the field, medical applications and much more. The Company has also announced a larger-throughput product called PromethION that will allow users to process larger samples or larger numbers of smaller ones. Both devices measure single molecules directly, with simpler workflows that do not require amplification of the original sample (as in existing techniques). The devices are designed to allow the analysis of different molecules such as RNA and proteins. The nanopore sensing technology underpinning Oxford Nanopore devices has roots in the Bayley group research.

Oxford Nanopore, now at the Oxford Science Park, currently employs over 200 people and has attracted more than £180 million in investment since 2005. The very high level of investment reflects the considerable interest in the company’s pioneering technology, which has the potential to change the fields of DNA sequencing and single-molecule analysis. This is not only by capitalising on the growing global market in ‘next generation sequencing’ (in 2012 this market stood at $232 million and is expected by market researchers to be approximately $7.6 billion by 2018) but by enabling new applications previously limited by existing technologies.

In 2009, Hagan Bayley was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year Award in recognition of his contribution to the commercialisation of nanopore research.

Research funded by the Royal Society, Research Councils UK, Medical Research Council, ONR, National Institutes of Health, EU-FP7, European Research Council, and the Nano-SciE+ Program.

Images courtesy of Oxford Nanopore Technologies.