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Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian co-awarded Millennium Technology Prize

Trinity Fellow Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Christ’s Fellow Professor Sir David Klenerman have been awarded the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize for ‘their innovation of Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), technology that enables fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing.’

The one million Euro Millennium Technology Prize, awarded by Technology Academy Finland, is one of the world’s most prestigious science prizes.

Sir Shankar and Sir David’s rapid genome sequencing technology has transformed biology and genomic medicine worldwide and opened up new pharmaceutical avenues, for example, to detect cancer ‘signatures’ floating in the blood. The technology has also played a vital role in the fight against COVID.

Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Cambridge and Senior Group Leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Sir Shankar said:

This is the biggest international prize that David and I have received that recognises this technology originated from Cambridge and the wider impact it’s had. We’re so pleased on behalf of all the people who’ve been involved in making the technology happen.

Chair of the Millennium Technology Prize Selection Committee, Professor Päivi Törmä, said the Cambridge Professors were ‘worthy winners of the prize.’

The future potential of NGS is enormous and the exploitation of the technology is still in its infancy. The technology will be a crucial element in promoting sustainable development through personalisation of medicine, understanding and fighting killer diseases, and hence improving the quality of life.

Professor Sir David Klenerman and Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian photographed by Nathan Pitt in their lab.

It is the first time the prize has been jointly awarded. Professor Marja Makarow, Chair of Technology Academy Finland, said:

Collaboration is an essential part of ensuring positive change for the future. Next Generation Sequencing is the perfect example of what can be achieved through teamwork and individuals from different scientific backgrounds coming together to solve a problem.

The technology pioneered by Professor Balasubramanian and Professor Klenerman has also played a key role in helping discover the coronavirus’s sequence, which in turn enabled the creation of the vaccines – itself a triumph for cross-border collaboration – and helped identify new variants of COVID-19.

Sir Shankar and Sir David co-founded Solexa in 1998 based on their fundamental research into DNA in order to develop a commercial sequencer. At the time, the young academics had to convince investors there would be a market for Solexa’s products.

But their technique worked and in 2007 the US company Illumina acquired Solexa. By analyzing fragments of DNA simultaneously, the time needed for sequencing, and thus the cost, was reduced substantially. Today Illumina dominates the NGS market; the Solexa-Illumina Sequencing technique is thought to account for 90% of DNA sequencing.

Sir Shankar said one of the biggest surprises of NGS had been its broad application in unexpected areas.

One that I’ll single out is the impact of DNA sequencing during the COVID pandemic to track the virus and variants – notably by COG-UK which involves Cambridge University and the Sanger Institute. It’s also being used to sequence the genomes of people with COVID-19 to understand why some suffer serious disease while the majority has a benign infection.

Asked about next steps, he said:

We’re now in a position to start integrating this technology and the information that it generates into national healthcare systems. Linking to the work that David and I did, it all began with a taxpayer-funded research grant here in the UK and without that funding none of this would have happened.

Sir Shankar: ‘Did everything work first for us time? Absolutely not.’ Photo: Nathan Pitt, University of Cambridge

Sir Shankar is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a recipient of numerous awards and was knighted for ‘services to science and medicine’ in 2017. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

I say to my students: ‘Don’t think small, think big, and be patient.’ Did everything work first for us time? Absolutely not. It’s essential to fail, that’s how you learn, but try to fail quickly. And take the time to dream how the world might be changed as a result of your idea.

Read more about the Millennium Technology Prize 2020.

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