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New Illumina CEO, Venter Book, and New Yorker Takes on He Jiankui
Welcome to Theral’s Picks, a regular newsletter covering a few current news items in the world of biology and biotech. Here goes:
Illumina will have a new face at the helm. Jacob Thaysen, former senior Vice President at Agilent Technologies and President of its Life Sciences and Applied Markets Group will be the new CEO of Illumina. At 48, he leads a company now celebrating 25 years of stunning success but showing signs of its age.
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After the former CEO, Francis de Souza, resigned in June, Illumina has faced uncertain times. Still dominating the sequencing space, have they melted some of their wings flying too close to the sun with the reacquisition of early cancer detection firm, Grail? De Souza pushed through the purchase at a high price and against the demands of both U.S. and European regulatory bodies.
Illumina’s stock has tumbled in the past year along with that of many other life science companies due to the difficult post-pandemic economy. Grail is now seen to be worth half what Illumina paid for it.
This has put the company in the crosshairs of activist investor, Carl Icahn, who singlehandedly shook up the board and forced De Souza’s ouster.
Thaysen has an impressive resume in genomics and life science tools. From the press release:
Since 2018, he has overseen the unit responsible for Agilent's market-leading analytical instrument portfolio, informatics, and cell analysis franchise. During that time, he drove the division's revenue and significantly improved its operating profit. In 2022, that division, Agilent's largest, had revenue of approximately $4 billion, more than 50,000 customers, and an operating margin of approximately 30%. Mr. Thaysen has driven the transformation of the analytical lab with a focus on implementing a complete digital laboratory ecosystem combined with innovative and smart instruments. Prior to leading Life Science and Applied Markets, Mr. Thaysen was president of Agilent's Diagnostics and Genomics Group from 2014 to 2018, during which time he nearly doubled that division's operating profit.
Thaysen assumes leadership for one of the field’s great success stories precisely at the time of some decline. Recently Illumina downgraded their yearly forecast, partly as a result of the downturn in China, and there is no doubt the company faces stiff and ever-better competition from companies like Oxford Nanopore, PacBio, Element, and Ultima.
Thaysen “checks all the boxes,” said Evercore analyst Vijay Kumar to Reuters. The new Illumina leader understands the genomics and tools market and knows well the Illumina customer base. Another analyst, Patrick Donnelly from Citi, was not as positive. He told Reuters "It remains a show-me story given that investors were hoping for a hire with CEO experience.”
Can Jacob Thaysen pull it off, keep the holy Grail, and spur innovation ahead of the stiffest competition yet? Can he restore Illumina to its former glory?
He begins September 25th.
Speaking of former glory, Craig Venter is out with a new book telling of his voyage around the world collecting and characterizing tens of millions of marine microbes. The book is co-authored with science writer, David Ewing Duncan. Just in pre-release, the book promises to:
“Tell the remarkable story of these expeditions and of the momentous discoveries that ensued--of plant-like bacteria that get their energy from the sun, proteins that metabolize vast amounts of hydrogen, and microbes whose genes shield them from ultraviolet light. The result was a massive library of millions of unknown genes, thousands of unseen protein families, and new lineages of bacteria that revealed the unimaginable complexity of life on earth. Yet despite this exquisite diversity, Venter encountered sobering reminders of how human activity is disturbing the delicate microbial ecosystem that nurtures life on earth. In the face of unprecedented climate change, Venter and Duncan show how we can harness the microbial genome to develop alternative sources of energy, food, and medicine that might ultimately avert our destruction. A captivating story of exploration and discovery, The Voyage of Sorcerer II restores microbes to their rightful place as crucial partners in our evolutionary past and guides to our future.”
Venter is an exciting and seasoned writer with two bestsellers to his name. He has been at the vanguard of the genomics revolution, piloting many of the field’s big projects from sequencing the genome to synthesizing a whole genome. Ewing Duncan has written many books, mostly boosterism for the future of technology.
Will the Voyage of Sorcerer II offer new insight into microbial science, or will it be another nature documentation about the fragile planet warning of global warming and doom? Perhaps both. It comes out next week.
In the latest edition of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear writes an updated story of the now infamous Chinese scientist who attempted live embryo editing, He Jiankui (JK). Titled The Transformative, Alarming Power of Gene Editing (paywall), the article is instead exclusively about human germline genome editing.
This story has been well told in recent books, including by Hank Greely and Kevin Davies. It has been some time since JK first shocked the world by going rogue and releasing his work through YouTube. Dana now catches us up on the saga.
In interviews with JK after his release from prison, she learns that the Chinese scientist is attempting a comeback, proposing new gene editing studies, and tweeting out (Xing?) advice. He is now the Director of Genetic Medicine at Wuchang University of Technology in Wuhan.
JK was released from prison in the spring of 2022, and quickly resumed his efforts at gene editing. When I spoke to him by Zoom this past January, he was in Shenzhen, with his wife and two young daughters, celebrating a spring festival. The family, he said, was moving to Beijing, where he was opening a new laboratory. He was posting regularly on Twitter, interspersing job listings for lab positions with blue-sky images of him teeing off on the golf course.
JK is thirty-nine, and wore a blue oxford shirt and a tweed blazer. He said that his new lab would be a nonprofit providing affordable gene therapy for rare conditions, and that he would focus first on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal disease that causes irreversible muscle damage, primarily in boys. This time, his patients would be not embryos but young children desperate for a cure. I asked if it was an attempt to redeem himself in the scientific community. “I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘redeem,’ ” he said. “I want to do it to help people today.”
He refused to discuss his embryo-editing experiment in any detail. Rocking back and forth as he spoke, he periodically broke out in uncomfortable laughter. “Hmm! I don’t know,” he said, smiling, when he was dodging a question. I asked if Lulu, Nana, and the third baby, Amy, knew that they had been edited. He looked at the ceiling and smiled. “I’m not going to answer this,” he finally replied. But he did want to dispel a rumor that had been circulating online. “The twins were not killed or sterilized,” he said. “They are living happily with their parents.”
As for the debacle that his experiment had caused, JK would admit to no greater error than bad timing. “I do acknowledge that I have done it too quickly,” he said. In one of his YouTube videos, he predicted that in twenty or thirty years gene-edited babies will no longer be controversial, or even remarkable. He likened himself to the pioneering founder of the field of I.V.F., Robert Edwards, whose career had followed a heroic arc. In 1978, when the first I.V.F. baby was born, Edwards was a figure of scandal and opprobrium. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Dana also tracks down one of JK’s collaborators, Ryan Ferrell, a young American science PR executive, who gave up his job and moved to China to advise on the project. It was Farrell’s idea to bypass the journals and publish on YouTube. I personally know Ryan and have heard his story of the mis-episode, and he has some interesting additions, particularly of the time when it all went down.
Dana takes a trip to Oregon to the lab of Mitalipov to learn about editing non-viable embryos as well.
The New Yorker goes out to a large mainstream audience, unlike some of the expert books written on this story. This will be perhaps the first time many read it in this detail. That’s a good thing. Though it is a long comprehensive article, I feel it misses telling the successes in the field.
The title promises to talk about gene editing in general. Towards the end of the article we hear about two sibling kids, one with a rare disease, the other a carrier. What Dana leaves out is the incredible blossoming of the field of gene therapy or the editing of somatic cells vs. germline cells. Somatic edits happen for just one person and are not passed on to future generations. The FDA approved the first two gene therapies this year, one for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and the other for sickle cell disease. This is an exciting time of success in the gene editing field, even if we are years away from germline editing. The other area skipped over here is the field of reproductive genetics where there is no need for gene editing, but rather sequencing-assisted IVF. Selecting healthy embryos for implantation completely avoids the need to edit the germline.
The author of a single article must have priorities and stay focused. However, not talking about the successes in the field of gene editing—not to mention synthetic biology—this author missed the chance for a more balanced education of the lay audience. The priority here is clearly doom and gloom about the future of genetics.