Davos wowed by device that reads ‘code of life’ in hours

It was the talk of Davos, grabbing the imagination of a forum otherwise shrouded in gloom: a miracle machine that cracks the code of life within hours and could revolutionise healthcare.

Patients will no longer have to wait weeks to know if they have cancer and their doctors will know immediately what kind of disease they have, allowing them to target therapies precisely and to avoid harmful delays or mistakes.

Health officials confronted by superbug outbreaks will be able to identify the bug’s strain and begin planning treatment within hours rather than days or weeks, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Soon, researchers in the developing world will take portable DNA sequencers into the field to identify new viruses and verify water quality.

And police investigators will be able to develop a suspect’s DNA profile as quickly as their fictional counterparts do in glossy television dramas, while commandos on the battlefield will identify the bodies of friend and foe.

The man behind the revolution is Jonathan Rothberg, master biotechnician and CEO of Ion Torrent, owned by US firm Life Technologies, which produces the Ion Proton — the world’s first desktop semiconductor-based gene sequencer.

Business and political leaders at this year’s Global Economic Forum were gripped by pessimism over the economy, but — at a summit boycotted by Mick Jagger — Rothberg was received in Davos like a rockstar of science.

“He’s a genius. I want to buy his machines,” Sami Sagol, a leading Israeli neuroscientist and research sponsor, told passengers on a minibus ferrying delegates through the snowbound streets of the Swiss resort.

“I was sat next to him at dinner. He’s amazing,” declared a young investment banker swigging beer in a nearby bar, admitting he had found Davos’ scientific programme more uplifting than the headline economic debates.

The man himself, geekily excited in a woolly ski hat and loud striped shirt, bursts with enthusiasm for a machine that has brought the once laborious task of gene-sequencing to the era of the semi-conductor microchip.

With no false modesty, he compares the revolution to the transition from the era of room-sized computing machines to desktop microprocessors, and predicts that his technology will follow the computer into laptop and hand-held forms.

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