Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My thoughts on the acquisition of Ion Torrent by Life Technologies

Yesterday it was announced that Ion Torrent, makers of the Ion Personal Genome Machine (PGM) sequencer, would be acquired by Invitrogen ABI Life Technologies for $375M in cash and stock, with the possibility of another $350M if various milestones are met.

Gregory Lucier, chairman and CEO of Life Technologies, said, "We believe Ion Torrent's technology will represent a profound change for the life sciences industry, as fundamental as the one we saw with the introduction of qPCR." That analogy might not sound earth-shattering, but I suspect he is using qPCR as an example because it is one of the few molecular biology (as opposed to biochemical) techniques regularly used in clinical settings.

The PGM is a unique machine because it is the first second generation sequencer (tentative specs: ~3 million 200bp reads at $500 1hr run, $50k machine) that could be conceivably leased by a small clinical testing facility, like the ones fed by those LabCorp boxes you see scattered all over strip malls. Bear in mind even a capillary-based sanger sequencer like the ABI3730xl costs a whopping $375,000, which comes as a shock to those of us who mostly work with next-generation sequencing data. You can see not only why the PGM is really a game changer, but how it might fit into Life Technologies offerings.

Exactly which clinical diagnostics are, or will be, suited for this machine are unclear. With the right foolproof software this could replace a lot of PCR and microarray-based tests. Read lengths and throughput are bound to increase just as they did with Solexa. Future applications like tumor sequencing and 16S rRNA microbiome sequencing have not even entered into medical practice yet.

The key to Life Technology succeeding in these areas will likely come down to non-technical challenges:
  • Getting FDA approval for the PGM as a medical device and for various protocols based on the PGM as approved clinical tests. Life Technology has experience with this process. Ion Torrent clearly does not.
  • Convincing insurance companies and HMOs that these tests are cost-effective diagnostics. When you consider the exorbitant cost of other tests - e.g. several MRIs over a course of chemotherapy - this might not be such hard sell.
  • Developing a business model that will allow small clinics to lease the machine for little or even no cost provided they agree to purchase a minimum amount of consumables. Life Technologies will likely market the PGM to smaller labs who themselves will inevitably face competition from larger dedicated sequencing centers trying to centralize this type of work using bigger machines from Illumina or PacBio (or even LT's SOLiD).

Although these obstacles seem daunting, I have sat through academic departmental meetings where very knowledgeable sequencer salespeople were invited back multiple times only to be jerked around as the faculty hemmed and hawed over whether this was the right $400k machine to buy at the time. That was undoubtedly an expensive and frustrating sales process for Solexa and 454. With the PGM, Life Technologies can pitch this much cheaper machine to an albeit different group of skeptics, clinical lab managers, but one with a clear bottom line in mind.

2 comments:

  1. Do 3730s really still list for $330K? The second-hand market should be pretty flooded with them & when a company I was at was trying to unload some I heard the street price was more in the neighborhood of $30K

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  2. yeah that sounds more reasonable

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