Illumina: Driving the business of genome sequencing forward
Imagine the vastness o...
This article was originally published in the August issue of Healthcare Global magazine. To read additional features, click here.
Imagine the vastness of a topic as broad as astronomy, combine it with the study of particle physics and then integrate the digital information housed by a social media giant such as YouTube—this is how expansive the field of sequencing human DNA has become.
The industry is predicted by scientists to take the lead as the biggest data storage giant in the world, and while it is a testament to the complexity of the human genome, it is a feat that needs to be met with the latest tech solutions to house and understand such a titan.
In the bustling city of San Diego, California, a biotech company by the name of Illumina manufactures and markets integrated systems for the analysis of genetic information, and in the coming age of genomic medicine, it is poised to become a dominant supplier for the industry.
Illumina has one goal: to apply innovative technologies to the analysis of genetic variation and function, making studies possible that weren’t even imaginable a few years ago. As researchers race to develop DNA-based technologies to break firsts in a market that is predicted by Forbes to exceed US$20 billion in the near future, the global leader shows no signs of letting up or slowing down.
A brief history
Illumina emerged from “blue sky” research in the chemistry department of Cambridge University that later evolved into the revolutionary sequencing by synthesis (SBS) technology: the foundation of Illumina’s sequencing instruments.
The company was founded in April of 1998 by David Walt, PhD of Tufts University and inventor of BeadArray technology; Larry Bock of the venture capitalist firm CW Group; John Stuelpnagel, DVM; Anthony Czarnik, PhD; and Mark Chee, PhD. In 1999, CEO Jay Flatley joined the company.
When the company completed its initial public offering on July 1, 2000, it generated over US$100 million, signaling its success to come. The ensuing eight years after Illumina’s IPO marked numerous notable moments, particularly with the development of new technologies, but not without setbacks.
Illumina began as a 25-person startup that sold microarray chips—useful in examining spots on the genome for mutations—but as the genome sequencing market grew relatively fast, so did competition. The company began to lose money (for example, in 2003, Illumina had $28 million in revenue and a net loss of $27 million) and the potential for microarrays was starting to dim as more comprehensive sequencing technology began to improve, and quickly.
Flatley knew that there was only one thing that could keep Illumina alive and relevant to the industry: innovation.
Driving innovation to succeed
In 2006, when news of another company being close to creating its first rapid readout of an individual human genome reached Flatley, he knew that was the answer for Illumina: either build or buy a sequencing technology of its own.
Flatley bought the company Solexa, which had been developing the concept of sequencing by synthesis—both a faster and cheaper process than traditional methods—and the acquisition has since proven to be a turning point for the company.
To date, Illumina has spent more than US$1.2 billion on acquisitions, but the ability to innovate and improve the technology of the companies it buys is what has kept Illumina at the helm of the genome sequencing industry.
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In an interview with Forbes back in April, Flatley noted that the reason for Illumina’s vast success was attributed to remaining technical at the top.
“We think it’s very important that the people who lead our company, which you might think of as my top 20 to 50 executives, have technology backgrounds,” said Flatley. “That could be science, engineering, software, or whatever it is. To be the winner in this business, you can’t just be a good general manager.”
With over 3,700 employees under his name, Flatley spends a lot of his time thinking about how to protect the culture that has been built and extending it to the global infrastructure.
“We empower our teams to go off and do great things,” continued Flatley. “They only have to come back to us under a very fixed set of circumstances. We [in management] can set the strategy and direction and talk about specifications. They can do the execution, which they are really good at.”
Empowering a healthy future via partnerships
Illumina places high value on collaborative interactions to fuel groundbreaking advancements in life science research. With the ability to sequence at an unprecedented scale, the company relies on partnerships to venture into new fields that can impact the world.
Illumina has been making strides in the field of fertility as of late. Last year, the company acquired Verinata Health—the maker of a non-invasive prenatal sequencing test to identify fetal abnormalities—thus allowing Illumina to offer this service to consumers (through their doctors) in a market that could be worth billions of dollars in revenue.
Additionally, the company has formed the Global Fertility Alliance with Merck KGaA of Germany, a leader in fertility drugs, and Genea of Australia, which operates fertility clinics.
The alliance will aim to standardize procedures for assisted reproduction and help families across the globe have healthy babies.
“We are confident this collaboration of innovators in the fertility field will deliver a significant positive impact for healthcare professionals, fertility labs, and most importantly their patients,” Tristan Orpin, senior vice president and general manager for reproductive genetic health at Illumina, told the news source Times of San Diego.
Looking overseas, by partnering with China-based genomic enterprise Annoroad, Illumina is looking to co-develop a next generation sequencing (NGS) diagnostic system that will improve patients’ reproductive health. The NGS technology has been observed by scientists lately and is being considered as a key factor for empowering precision medicine around the world.
The partnership signals the company’s attempt to expand overseas and broaden its customer base in the country while also allowing it to capture a larger share of this multi-billion dollar market.
Leading the genomics revolution
Illumina has truly been an impressive company from the start, and there is reason to believe that it will continue to reach new heights.
While its name is still barely recognizable to the public, Illumina is not only one of the most important companies in biomedicine but is also a leader in the field. With a history of producing innovative products and technologies over the span of 15 years, Illumina may soon claim the market all to itself.
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As noted by Forbes, “Just as Intel became the company that sparked so much of the computer revolution, Illumina has risen to prominence as a driver of the genomics revolution.”
How UiPath robots are helping with the NHS backlog
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hospitals to have logistical nightmares, as backlogs of surgeries built up as a result of cancellations. The BMJ has estimated it will take the UK's National Health Service (NHS) a year and a half to recover.
However software robots can help, by automating computer-based processes such as replenishing inventory, managing patient bookings, and digitising patient files. Mark O’Connor, Public Sector Director for Ireland at UiPath, tells us how they deployed robots at Mater Hospital in Dublin, saving clinicians valuable time.
When Did Mater Hospital implement the software robots - was it specifically to address the challenges of the pandemic?
The need for automation at Mater Hospital pre-existed the pandemic but it was the onset of COVID-19 that got the team to turn to the technology and start introducing software robots into the workflow of doctors and nurses.
The pandemic placed an increased administrative strain on the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) department at Mater Hospital in Dublin. To combat the problem and ensure that nurses could spend more time with their patients and less time on admin, the IPC deployed its first software robots in March 2020.
The IPC at Mater plans to continue using robots to manage data around drug resistant microbes such as MRSA once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
What tasks do they perform?
In the IPC at Mater Hospital, software robots have taken the task of reporting COVID-19 test results. Pre-automation, the process created during the 2003 SARS outbreak required a clinician to log into the laboratory system, extract a disease code and then manually enter the results into a data platform. This was hugely time consuming, taking up to three hours of a nurse’s day.
UiPath software robots are now responsible for this task. They process the data in a fraction of the time, distributing patient results in minutes and consequently freeing up to 18 hours of each IPC nurse’s time each week, and up to 936 hours over the course of a year. As a result, the healthcare professionals can spend more time caring for their patients and less time on repetitive tasks and admin work.
Is there any possibility of error with software robots, compared to humans?
By nature, humans are prone to make mistakes, especially when working under pressure, under strict deadlines and while handling a large volume of data while performing repetitive tasks.
Once taught the process, software robots, on the other hand, will follow the same steps every time without the risk of the inevitable human error. Simply speaking, robots can perform data-intensive tasks more quickly and accurately than humans can.
Which members of staff benefit the most, and what can they do with the time saved?
In the case of Mater Hospital, the IPC unit has adopted a robot for every nurse approach. This means that every nurse in the department has access to a robot to help reduce the burden of their admin work. Rather than spending time entering test results, they can focus on the work that requires their human ingenuity, empathy and skill – taking care of their patients.
In other sectors, the story is no different. Every job will have some repetitive nature to it. Whether that be a finance department processing thousands of invoices a day or simply having to send one daily email. If a task is repetitive and data-intensive, the chances are that a software robot can help. Just like with the nurses in the IPC, these employees can then focus on handling exceptions and on work that requires decision making or creativity - the work that people enjoy doing.
How can software robots most benefit healthcare providers both during a pandemic and beyond?
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, software robots were deployed to lessen the administrative strain healthcare professionals were facing and give them more time to care for an increased number of patients. With hospitals around the world at capacity, every moment with a patient counted.
Now, the NHS and other healthcare providers face a huge backlog of routine surgeries and procedures following cancellations during the pandemic. In the UK alone, 5 million people are waiting for treatment and it’s estimated that this could cause 6,400 excess deaths by the end of next year if the problem isn’t rectified.
Many healthcare organisations have now acquired the skills needed to deploy automation, therefore it will be easier for them to build more robots to respond to the backlog going forwards. Software robots that had been processing registrations at COVID test sites, for example, could now be taught how to schedule procedures, process patient details or even manage procurement and recruitment to help streamline the processes associated with the backlog. The possibilities are vast.
The technology, however, should not be considered a short-term, tactical and reactive solution that can be deployed in times of crisis. Automation has the power to solve systematic problems that healthcare providers face year-round. Hospital managers should consider the wider challenge of dealing with endless repetitive work that saps the energy of professionals and turns attention away from patient care and discuss how investing in a long-term automation project could help alleviate these issues.
How widely adopted is this technology in healthcare at the moment?
Automation was being used in healthcare around the world before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly accelerated the trend.
Automation’s reach is wide. From the NHS Shared Business Service in the UK to the Cleveland Clinic in the US and healthcare organisations in the likes of Norway, India and Canada, we see a huge range of healthcare providers deploying automation technology.
Many healthcare providers, however, are still in the early stages of their journeys or are just discovering automation’s potential because of the pandemic. I expect to see the deployment of software robots in healthcare grow over the coming years as its benefits continue to be realised globally.
How do you see this technology evolving in the future?
If one thing is certain, it’s that the technology will continue to evolve and grow over time – and I believe there will come a point in time when all processes that can be automated, will be automated. This is known as the fully automated enterprise.
By joining all automation projects into one enterprise-wide effort, the healthcare industry can tap into the full benefits of the technology. This will involve software robots becoming increasingly intelligent in order to reach and improve more processes. Integrating the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into automation, for example, will allow providers to reach non-rule-based processes too.
We are already seeing steps towards this being taken by NHS Shared Business Service, for example. The organisation, which provides non-clinical services to around two-thirds of all NHS provider trusts and every clinical commissioning organisation in the UK, is working to create an entire eco-system of robots. It believes that no automation should be looked at in isolation, but rather the technology should stretch across departments and functions. As such, inefficiencies in the care pathway can be significantly reduced, saving healthcare providers a substantial amount of time and money.