Shankar Balasubramanian: Indian-Origin Chemist In Millennium Tech Prize-Winning Team For Revolutionary DNA Sequencing Tech
The development of next-generation DNA sequencing technology earns Cambridge University chemists a prestigious global science and technology prize.
Part of the winning duo is a chemist of Indian origin.
Shankar Balasubramanian, a British-Indian chemist from the University of Cambridge, has been declared the winner of the 2020 Millennium Technology prize along with his colleague David Klenerman.
The duo was awarded the prestigious science and technology prize on 18 May by the President of the Republic of Finland, Sauli Niinisto, who is the Patron of the prize, during a virtual ceremony.
Indian-origin Balasubramanian is a professor of medicinal chemistry while Klenerman is a British biophysical chemist.
They were awarded for the development of a revolutionary next-generation DNA sequencing technique that has helped find new variants of the novel coronavirus.
Since 2004, the award has been given out at two-year intervals to highlight the huge impact of science and innovation on the well-being of society.
This is the first time that the prize, worth €1 million, has been awarded to more than one recipient for the same innovation.
Balasubramanian and Klenerman received the prize for co-inventing Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS).
This is a fast, accurate, low-cost, and large-scale genome sequencing process that determines the complete DNA sequence of an organism's make-up, which is proving crucial in the fight against Covid-19.
After winning the award, Balasubramanian, who works at the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and is a Fellow of Trinity College, said: “I am absolutely delighted at being awarded the Millennium Technology Prize jointly with David Klenerman, but it’s not just for us, I’m happy on behalf of everyone who has contributed to this work.”
Klenerman from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry and a Fellow of Christ’s College, said: “It’s the first time that we’ve been internationally recognised for developing this technology.”
“The idea came from Cambridge and was developed in Cambridge. It’s now used all over the world, so I’m delighted largely for the team of people who worked on this project and contributed to its success,” said the Cambridge professor.
Balasubramanian and Klenerman co-founded the company Solexa to make the technology available to the world.
The technology has helped to track and explore the viral mutations of SARS-CoV-2.
The work of Balasubramanian and Klenerman led to the development of several vaccines against dangerous strains and is expected to help prevent future pandemics.
Professor Marja Makarow, Chair of Technology Academy, Finland, said that the NGS technology is an example of what can be achieved through teamwork and individuals from different scientific backgrounds coming together to solve a problem.
The NGS technology is also allowing scientists to detect the underlying factors in individuals that contribute to their immune response to the coronavirus-caused disease.
This information is crucial to understanding the reason why some people respond much worse to the virus than others.
However, the technology has had a transformative impact in the fields of genomics, biology, and medicine.
Additionally, it has enabled the development of a broad range of related technologies, applications, and innovations.
Because of the efficacy of the NGS technology, it is now widely adopted in healthcare and diagnostics, such as cancer, infectious medicine, rare diseases, and sequencing-based non-invasive prenatal testing.
It has dramatically improved the understanding of the genetic basis of several cancers.
The revolutionary technology is used often in clinical tests for early detection and diagnostics, both from tumours and patients’ blood samples.
The NGS technology also allows the clear identification of thousands of organisms in almost any kind of sample, which is important for ecology, agriculture, and biodiversity research.
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