Cambridge chemist Shankar Balasubramanian gets prize for revolutionary DNA technique

Cambridge University chemists Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman were on last Tuesday declared the winners of the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize, a prestigious global science and technology prize awarded for their development of revolutionary sequencing techniques which means DNA can now be read in super-fast times.

The prize, awarded by Technology Academy Finland (TAF) at two-year intervals since 2004 – when Sir Tim Berners-Lee was honored for his discovery of the World Wide Web – to highlight the extensive impact of science and innovation on the wellbeing of society, is worth Euro 1 million.

Sir Balasubramanian, an India-born British professor of medicinal chemistry, and Sir Klenerman, a British biophysical chemist, co-invented the Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), technology enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing – the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s make-up, which is proving crucial in humanity’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The duo went on to co-found the company Solexa to make the technology more broadly available to the world.

“This is the first time we’ve received an international prize that recognizes our contribution to developing the technology – but it’s not just for us, it’s for the whole team that played a key role in the development of the technology and for all those that have inspired us on our journey,” the winning scientists said in a joint statement.

President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinisto, who is the Patron of the prize, presented the award to the scientists in a virtual ceremony on Tuesday.

The announcement of the 2020 award was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the technology is being used to track and explore the novel coronavirus viral mutations, which is a growing global concern.

“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. Professor Balasubramanian and Professor Klenerman are worthy winners of the prize,” said said Paivi Torma, Academy Professor and Chair of the Millennium Technology Prize Committee. 

The 2020 prize marks the first time that the honour has been awarded to more than one recipient for the same innovation, celebrating the significance of collaboration.

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