A pair of Cambridge University professors took home 1 million euro ($1.22 million) from the Millennium Technology Prize, known as the Finnish Nobel science prize, for their pioneering work in a superfast DNA sequencing technology.

Professors Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman won the prestigious science recognition for their work spanning more than 27 years in the development of faster and cheaper ways for sequencing the human genome.

2012 Consumer Electronics Show Showcases Latest Technology Innovations
(Photo: Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 11: The Proton Semiconductor Sequencer from Ion Torrent Systems Inc., a new DNA sequencing machine and chip designed to sequence the entire human genome in about eight hours for USD 1,000, is displayed at the Life Technologies Corp. booth at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center January 11, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The 1 Million Euro Science Breakthrough

The Cambridge University professors' work on Next-Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS) tech, according to a statement from the Technology Academy Finland - the body that grants the Millennium Technology Prize - "means huge benefits to society, from helping the fight against killer diseases such as COVID-19 or cancer to better understanding crop diseases and enhancing food production."

With the duo's next-generation sequencing tech, scientists now have an effective way of studying and identifying emerging coronavirus strains and other pathogens. As the global coronavirus pandemic besieged the world last year, the superfast DNA sequencing technology has become critical in tracking and exploring the SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, as well as its variants and mutations - now a serious emerging threat in different parts of the world. Balasubramanian and Klenerman pioneered the same technology used in the development of multiple vaccines now being distributed worldwide, as well as those against the emerging mutations.

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The knowledge gained from the various efforts against the coronavirus pandemic will also serve as a basis for preventing and responding to future pandemics. However, the decision to grant the Millennium Technology Prize to the developers of the superfast DNA sequencing technology was made as early as February 2020, before the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The International Selection Committee, a body of experts that evaluates the nominations for the prize, made the decision.

"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," says Academy Professor Päivi Törmä from Aalto University, also the Chair of the Millennium Technology Prize selection committee.

Creating a 'Million-Fold Improvement' in Sequencing Tech

The Technology Academy Finland statement, as reported by Aalto University, notes that the superfast DNA sequencing technology pioneered by the Cambridge University professors has led to a "million-fold improvement" compared to the first efforts at human genome sequencing. Two decades ago, in 2000, a single human genome sequence took ten years to complete and costs more than a billion dollars. Now, a similar undertaking can be done in one day and only costs about $1,000, leading to more than a million genome sequencing done at the scale every year. A practical benefit from this unprecedented scaling up of sequencing technology is that diseases can be better understood at a faster rate - as the case with the coronavirus pandemic.

The NGS' superfast DNA sequencing technology has made a significant impact in the fields of genomics, biology, and medicine. Through these advancements, scientists have found new uses for DNA, including the fabrication of nanostructures and specialized materials.


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