Bioengineers Meller and Weng Win Major NIH Grant to Reduce Cost of DNA Sequencing

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Associate professors Amit Meller and Zhiping Weng examine a tiny piece of silicon film used in the DNA-sequencing process.
Associate professors Amit Meller and Zhiping Weng examine a tiny piece of silicon film used in the DNA-sequencing process.

Two BostonUniversity biomedical engineers have won a major National Institutes of Health grant to continue groundbreaking research aimed at sequencing individual human genomes for about $1,000.

The NIH announced the winners of its National Human Genome Research Institute grants on Oct. 4. Boston University Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Physics Amit Meller was among nine researchers chosen for the “$1,000 Genome” award nationally, and received the second-largest grant. Meller and co-principal investigator Zhiping Weng, a BME associate professor, won $2.2 million over the next three years for their research, in addition to some $600,000 Meller has already received from NIH for this work.

Meller is using novel methods to decode the sequence of bases on a DNA strand at the molecular level. Using beams of electrons, Meller punches tiny holes in thin silicon films, then pulls strands of DNA through these “nanopores” using an electric current. Each base is identified by a florescent marker attached to it, which allows the researchers to record the sequence of bases as the strand emerges from the nanopore. Meller has devised a system of lasers and highly sensitive detectors which greatly increase the process’ resolution. He is the only researcher in the world using this method, which he names “Opti-Pore.”

Weng’s involvement centers on bioinformatics – using computational methods to organize the large amount of data collected.

Meller said he is grateful for the grant, which validates his approach to DNA sequencing. “We are very close to a proof of principle that we can read a small number of these bases, perhaps six or eight, using this method,” said Meller. “From there, it is a small step to reading tens, and later hundreds, at a time. That would produce an orders-of-magnitude reduction in the price of sequencing individuals’ DNA.”

According to NIH, sequencing the 3 billion base pairs on a human genome using current technology costs about $10 million. Reducing the cost to $1,000 or less would bring DNA sequencing into the realm of routine medical care, enabling doctors to diagnose and treat patients more effectively based on their individual genetic profiles.