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Illumina’s Dr David Bentley made OBE in New Year Honours 2022 for genomics expertise

Dr David Bentley, vice-president and chief scientist at Illumina Cambridge, has been made an OBE in the New Year Honours 2022 for services to expertise and leadership in human medical genomics.

Illumina is a global leader in sequencing technology and Dr Bentley has played a key role in its development.

Dr David Bentley, vice president and chief scientist at Illumina
Dr David Bentley, vice president and chief scientist at Illumina

He told the Cambridge Independent: “I am delighted to receive this award, especially as it honours the rich and world-leading scientific environment here in Cambridge. I am very grateful to be a member of this community, one which promotes scientific excellence, stimulates innovation and shares breakthroughs in genomic medicine for the benefit of patients worldwide.”

After completing degrees from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Dr Bentley was a co-founder of the Sanger Centre - now known as the Wellcome Sanger Institute - and he led its major contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Dr Bentley became an advisor to Solexa in 1998, before joining it full-time, and then became vice president and chief scientist of Illumina in 2007, when it acquired Solexa.

Born in Windsor, his father was musical director at the Royal Windsor theatre and his mother was a biology teacher. He credits her with starting him on his path into science, along with a high school biology teacher called Ian Watson.

“He taught us a lot about molecular biology. And also about the whole convergence of genetic inheritance - the molecular basis of it and the chromosomal basis of inheritance. It was clearly one of his pet topics and I just lapped it up. I loved it,” he said in a speech on his career.

Dr David Bentley has been made an OBE
Dr David Bentley has been made an OBE

He described his time at Cambridge, where he read natural sciences, as “wonderful”, praising Jesus College tutor David Hanky as a “tremendous guiding light”.

His PhD began at Cambridge’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Fred Sanger’s division, which was focused on protein nucleic acid chemistry. He described Sanger as “a great mentor and guide, as well as a tremendous scientist”.

Dr Bentley was one of George Brownlee’s PhD students

“He’d spent a lot of time working on RNA sequencing in his earlier days and that innovative and adventurous spirit showed through in this remarkably quiet but enthusiastic man,” he recalled.

His PhD transferred to Oxford, where he got the experience of setting up a new lab.

He was driving between the cities when he heard the news of Fred Sanger’s Nobel Prize on the radio.

Dr Bentley became a postdoctoral fellow at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital in London, where he studied the mutations that cause genetic diseases such as haemophilia.

Then he was invited to set up a new institute by John Sulston.

“I was very happy at Guy’s,” he recalled. “I was doing a great deal with human genetics at this point. But clearly this was another opportunity. Perhaps a difficult decision but clearly as time went on – a relatively short space of time - it was clear this was a very big opportunity.

“I think it was less than a year later the Sanger Centre grant was awarded and I moved some six, nine months after that to set up a group and to bring some people with me from Guy’s who had been working on the X chromosome and chromosome 22. And that was the basis for the human genome component of the Sanger program.”

The MRC and Wellcome Trust worked together to create the Sanger Centre.

“The Human Genome Project must be the most step-by-step hierarchical study of any genome, I think, that’s ever been done, but that was partly because we were working every step out - one after the other, rather sequentially,” he recalled. “We were relying on different techniques to try to tackle a very large problem, and also I think the community in general, and perhaps the funding agencies in particular, needed to see those levels of evidence, the levels of proof, the levels of being able to obtain completion at different levels of resolution to be confident of moving on to the next level, and I think that was a fairly compelling element of the project that enabled us quite quickly to move through the barriers, and to confidently expand the program.”

While at Sanger, he met two lecturers from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge who were founding Solexa - Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman.

Dr David Bentley, vice president and chief scientist at Illumina
Dr David Bentley, vice president and chief scientist at Illumina

He was struck by their vision for a new kind of DNA technology that would enable fast and affordable DNA sequencing and analysis, and became an advisor, before joining as a chief scientist, taking responsibility for the company’s DNA sequencing applications development and projects

After Solexa was acquired by Illumina, it continued to further develop the incredible technology that has made sequencing a fundamental part of modern medicine.

Illumina, which has its EMEA headquarters at Granta Park, is a leading developer, manufacturer and marketer of life science tools and integrated systems for large-scale analysis of genetic variation and function.

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