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A researcher in San Francisco uses the Illumina NextSeq 550 genetic sequencer to decode a COVID-19 infection. Photo: Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The head of the world's leading genetic sequencing company predicts a future where genomic data will increasingly drive health care.

Why it matters: As our ability to read genes gets faster and cheaper, genetic sequencing could pave the way for everything from enhanced disease surveillance to truly personalized care.

Driving the news: Illumina, which controls roughly 90% of the market for genetic sequencing machines in the U.S., announced earlier this week it earned record revenue of $1.09 billion in the first quarter of 2021.

  • The company is projecting revenue growth of 25–28% in fiscal year 2021 over the previous year.

Details: That growth is due in large part to "the extraordinarily massive and urgent human needs of the pandemic," Illumina CEO Francis DeSouza told Axios in an interview.

  • Genetic sequencing machines like the ones produced by Illumina were how scientists were able to rapidly decode the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and start building both tests and the mRNA vaccines that will ultimately curb the pandemic.
  • Our ability to track more dangerous virus mutations like B.1.1.7 was only possible because gene sequencing technology had gotten faster, cheaper and more widespread.

What's next: It cost $1,000 for Illumina to sequence a human genome in 2014, but the company expects to reach the $100 level within a couple of years.

  • Ultra-cheap sequencing — combined with an ever-increasing understanding of the genome — will result in genetics becoming "the foundational element of your health record," he says.

What to watch: The growth of liquid biopsies — tests that can find the genetic markers of cancer in blood samples.

  • Illumina is in the process of a $7.1 billion acquisition of Grail, a company that has developed liquid biopsies for dozens of cancers, but the Federal Trade Commission last week moved to block the acquisition on competitive grounds.
  • DeSouza contests the FTC's case that the acquisition will ultimately increase the cost of liquid biopsies, arguing Illumina can help get Grail's diagnostics to market faster and accelerate reimbursements for "underserved populations that can't afford the test."

The bottom line: Just as WWI helped accelerate the development of airplanes and WWII nuclear technology, "I believe we will look back and view the pandemic as ushering the era of biology and the era of the genome," says DeSouza.

Go deeper

Apr 8, 2021 - Science

How AI could revolutionize biology — and vice versa

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Cutting-edge, machine-learning techniques are increasingly being adapted and applied to biological data, including for COVID-19.

The big picture: Discovering and developing a new drug typically takes more than a decade and costs on average close to $1 billion, making it difficult to build a cache of pharmaceuticals to fight future pandemics or stop intractable diseases.

Several states declare emergency over Colonial Pipeline shutdown

A sign warns consumers on the avaliability of gasoline at a RaceTrac gas station in Smyrna, Georgia, on May 11. The average national price of gasoline has risen to $2.985 a gallon, Bloomberg notes. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

Reports of fuel shortages across the U.S. emerged on Tuesday as the national average for gasoline prices soared to its highest level since 2014 amid a key fuel pipeline shut down, per Bloomberg.

What's happening: Operator Colonial Pipeline aims to have service restored by the week's end following last Friday's ransomware attack that shut down some 5,500 miles of pipeline from Texas to New Jersey. The governors of Florida, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina declared states of emergency Tuesday due to shortage concerns.

Reports: More than 100 Republicans threaten to form 3rd party over Trump

Former President Trump addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, in February. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

More than 100 Republicans will sign a letter Thursday threatening to create a third party if the GOP doesn't "break" with former President Trump, Reuters first reported.

Why it matters: Per Axios' Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, Trump's grip on the GOP has gotten stronger since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The Republican Party's "allegiance to Trump" as he continues to make false claims about his 2020 election loss has "dismayed" the group, according to Reuters.