The crypto and blockchain technologies are undoubtedly developing fast these days. Companies from nearly every industry are trying their luck in these areas, with bigger or smaller successes. Genetics isn’t staying far behind.
Last Wednesday George Church, a Harvard University genetics guru and one of the leading CRISPR scientists, announced the launch of his own blockchain-based startup, Nebula Genomics. The asset that will be managed and exchanged, using digital currency will be your DNA.
What does genetics have to do with business, you may ask. Quite a lot, actually. There are a lot of companies that deal with genome sequencing. The most popular are 23andMe and Ancestry.com. They offer their DNA testing kits at $100 or less. It’s a huge progress compared to 2001 when the first genome was sequenced for $3 billion. And that price is expected to drop even lower.
The thing is, as Church argues in the white paper explaining Nebula Genomics’s business model, that the current approach to DNA sequencing is outdated and less effective.
“Today, 23andMe and Ancestry are the two leading personal genomics companies. Both use DNA microarray-based genotyping for their genetic tests. It is an outdated and significantly less powerful alternative to DNA sequencing. Instead of sequencing continuous stretches of DNA, genotyping identifies single letters spaced at approximately regular intervals across the genome. While human whole genome sequencing determines ~ 6.4 billion letters, microarray-based genotyping used by 23andMe and Ancestry identifies letters at only ~ 600.000 positions. Thus it generates small amounts of data that are of limited value to individual data owners and researchers,” says Church.
The second concern of Church’s is that those companies don’t address data ownership or privacy concerns, among other issues. Apart from paying the companies to test their DNA, nearly 85% of the users consent to sharing their DNA information for research purposes. Since they keep all the data, the personal genomics companies can later sell it to larger pharma and biotech companies for their own research and development. In effect, the companies profit, while you get nothing. That’s, in Church’s opinion, a very poor financial incentive for more people to sequence their genome.
Nebula Genomics promises to change all that. Their users will be able to share their personal genome for research purposes, but they’ll retain ownership and make a profit. The buyers will obtain genomic data directly from data owners, thus eliminating middlemen such as 23andMe or Ancestry.com. This business model will also help protect privacy: data owners will store their data privately and decide who has access to it. Moreover, they will remain anonymous, while data buyers will be required to provide details about their identity.
Of course, they need their own currency, right? If everything goes according to plan, data buyers will be able to buy Nebula tokens for fiat money and later use them to purchase access to Nebula Genomics data. Easy!
While the idea is still new, Nebula Genomics is doing well. It has already obtained significant investments. Among its advisors, you will find Veritas Genetics co-founders, while First Star Ventures is backing them up financially.
Let’s see where the future will take us!