In 2011, Ashley Van Zeeland, a researcher with a recent PhD in neuroscience, was working as a fellow at the Scripps Research Translational Institute when she met a young woman with a mysterious illness. The girl’s parents were frightened and felt isolated: They didn’t know if their daughter would survive—and if she did, what kind of life she could expect. Van Zeeland was part of the team that sequenced the family’s DNA and, utilizing a new technology in the field of informatics, identified a new gene that was responsible for the girl’s rare disorder. It was a pivotal moment for the parents, who found peace of mind knowing their daughter could expect a full life and join the small community of young survivors of the same illness.
It was a pivotal moment for Van Zeeland as well. Seeing knowledge and technology come together to change that family’s life cemented her desire to further expand the enormous potential of genomics. Her path led her to Illumina, the San Diego-based biotech company with a mission to improve human health by unlocking the power of the genome. Their transformative work has earned Illumina a spot on Fast Company‘s list of the world’s Most Innovative Companies.
Illumina has been innovating genetic sequencing for more than 20 years. When the company introduced its first sequencer in 2006, the cost to sequence a single genome was $300,000. Today, that cost can be as low as $600.
Illumina’s advances in genetic sequencing are reshaping medicine. Genetic sequencing has now allowed cancer patients to find treatment options specific to their tumors, doctors to anticipate adverse drug reactions and personalize medicine, public health agencies around the world to track and detect new COVID variants, and patients with rare diseases to more easily identify and treat their illnesses. The next wave of innovation includes nucleic medicine, gene- and cell-based therapies, and early diagnostic tests.
“Our next moonshot is the $100 genome, a huge goal that really rallies everybody together and turns the innovation dials all the way up,” says Van Zeeland, who is now Illumina’s VP and head of Illumina Open Innovation. “Our open innovation and philanthropic efforts will make sure these transformative innovations are actually getting out and changing lives.”
A NETWORK OF INNOVATION
Through Illumina Open Innovation, Illumina is investing in new startups and partnering in research efforts to develop solutions in areas such as rapid sequencing and data security. “To really unlock the power of the genome is something we can’t do alone,” Van Zeeland says. “Illumina Open Innovation is all about creating opportunities and structures to invite innovation in and work collaboratively to drive even farther on what this technology can do.”
At the same time, Illumina’s philanthropic arm is working to increase access to the technology. Illumina worked with the African Union, Africa CDC, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help establish the Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative (PGI). In April 2021, Illumina committed $60 million in sequencing capabilities to a global pathogen genomics initiative, which expands the Africa PGI model globally. “It is invigorating to be part of this incredible brain trust with so many diverse skillsets working to unlock the potential of genomics,” Van Zeeland says. “I know that the next five years are going to be twice as impactful as the past 10. And that is exciting.”