Illumina calls in the lawyers to curb the rise of Oxford Nanopore

Illumina ($ILMN) is suing Oxford Nanopore, a British upstart that is trying to take a slice of the DNA sequencing market from the genomics giant. Both companies have patents covering nanopore DNA sequencing, but Illumina claims it owns IP covering the technology used by its rival's products.

The patents at the heart of Illumina's argument originated at the University of Washington and the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In 2013, Illumina licensed the patents, strengthening its position in nanopore sequencing. Both patents cover the use of Mycobacterium smegmatis porin A (MspA) as a nanopore, a hole through which DNA is passed, generating an electrical current from which the nucleic acid sequence can be inferred. While the patents may give Illumina control over who can use MspA-based nanopores, it is unclear whether this particular pore is used by Oxford Nanopore.

For its part, Oxford Nanopore outwardly sounds calm and confident about the case. "It is gratifying to have the commercial relevance of Oxford Nanopore products so publicly acknowledged by the market monopolist for NGS," Oxford Nanopore CEO Gordon Sanghera said in a statement. The brief statement released by Oxford Nanopore dismissed the likelihood of the court case affecting growth of its business, which is ramping up ahead of a possible IPO, and claimed Illumina's action is "without merit."

While Oxford Nanopore thinks it can come through the case without disruption to its commercial plans, in asking U.S. trade officials to probe the company and possibly block imports of its MinION sequencers, Illumina is trying to cause such upheaval. "[The lawsuit is about] protecting their space and causing headaches to Oxford [Nanopore] as they're trying to go public," Shawn Baker, cofounder of genomics consultancy AllSeq, told MIT Technology Review. Oxford Nanopore is a small player, but the tiny size and long-read capabilities of its product mean it can best Illumina in some niches.

That range of niches may expand into territory traditionally dominated by Illumina when Oxford Nanopore rolls out its high-throughput benchtop sequencer PromethION. In reaching this point, Oxford Nanopore has built up a thicket of its own patents, the significance of which will be picked over as the Illumina case advances. 

- read the Illumina statement
- here's Oxford Nanopore's riposte
- check out MIT Technology Review's article
- and Bio-IT World's take