The full DNA of an organism - the genome - determines what that organism looks like and how it functions. The better we understand this, the more we can learn about the intricacies of living beings. We know the broad outline of human DNA, and scientists are now determining the DNA differences between people. These differences characterise the diversity of people but they also hold the key to a higher risk for genetic disorders such as dementia, psychosis, diseases of the heart and blood vessels, and cancer. If we know and understand the differences, we can also use them as the foundation for new treatments.
However, to record these differences efficiently, it is essential that everything moves much faster than the current technology allows. This has now become possible. So-called "new generation" sequence technology has recently been developed, but it is still very expensive. Nevertheless, Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and UZ-KU Leuven - the Catholic University Medical Center of Leuven, Belgium - have joined forces to give Flemish scientists access to this state-of-the-art technology. Via a co-ordinated investment programme, they are bringing Roche's DNA sequence technology platform, the so-called 454 sequencing, to Flanders.
This technique provides an ingenious manner to super-efficiently decipher DNA code. DNA fragments are isolated in drops of water, which function as micro-reactors. Using these pieces of DNA, 10 million identical copies are made and they are simultaneously - but individually - sequenced. This is all done on a tablet the size of a credit card which contains 1,6 million little holes in which sequence reactions are generated. Seven hours later, the DNA sequences are produced by the computer, thereby rendering a wealth of data. This technology has the advantage of producing large parts of sequences from the genomes that are to be recorded, which benefits not only the speed but also the accuracy of the information. In short, the larger the pieces of the puzzle, the quicker and more precise the image of the entire picture.
Determining sequences can now be done 100 times faster than the technologies which are currently being used. With the next version of the new technology, which should be available within a year, one experiment will yield yet another 10 times more sequence, so 1000 times more than now. Therefore, with the new technology, Flemish scientists will in one day be able to gather DNA data that would today take 3 years to compile. This is truly revolutionary.
In order to make optimal use of these substantial investments, VIB and UZ-KU Leuven are mutually co-ordinating activities on both units. Both parties will exchange expertise and will make capacity available to one another. In addition, VIB and UZ-KU Leuven will be able to grant Flemish researchers from other centres access to this revolutionary technology via this platform.
The 454 sequencer will be embedded in the Genetic Service Facility of the VIB Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Antwerp under the direction of Christine Van Broeckhoven. New technology will be developed under the supervision of Jurgen Del-Favero, supporting basic research such as sequencing new, full genomes of interesting organisms - e.g. pathogenic organisms - and tracing DNA differences that cause illnesses. On top of that, there will be a large investment in translational research focusing on the development of more efficient and cheaper genetic diagnostic tests. The University of Antwerp guarantees a structural contribution towards the cost of this new investment.
According to VIB, "This technology will allow us to more quickly identify the molecular mechanisms of illness." With this investment, UZ-KU Leuven wishes to stimulate translational research which will, through interaction between researchers and clinicians, generate genuine innovations in the field of patient care. A powerful DNA diagnostic platform to find mutations in genes which cause, among other things, breast and bowel cancer, or are involved in illnesses such as heart, vascular illnesses and diabetes, can contribute to significant diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities. According to UZ-KU Leuven, "This technology brings fundamental research closer to patient applications."
More news about the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology is available in this VMW issue's article On the road to a new cancer therapy - starving the tumour.