The blockchain-enabled startup's new pilot will rely on its database of sequenced genomes.

Nebula Genomics, Merck KGaA's EMD Serono partner on lung cancer pilot

By Laura Lovett
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Less than a year after the blockchain-enabled genome sequencing startup's launch, Nebula Genomics is announcing its first pharma partnership with Merck KGaA’s EMD Serono. This early partnership will come in the form of a pilot program. 

As part of the deal, EMD Serono will be able to use Nebula’s network of anonymized genomic data. This new pilot is specifically zeroing in on lung cancer patients and still looking to recruit new participants. In exchange Nebula is offering participants fitting the criteria germline and tumor whole genome sequencing. 

Nebula was cofounded by geneticist George Church, who has frequently made headlines for other genetic projects, including an attempt to revive the Woolly Mammoth

The way the platform works is a participant can have their their whole genome sequenced for no out of pocket cost. People can then sell their data to researchers and receive Nebula tokens in exchange. A participant is able to use these coins to purchase information about their genome sequence, and what it means for their health and potential future of their child. 

The new company has already landed $4.3 million in a Series A round last August.

Cofounder Dennis Grishin noted that the startup has the potential to work as a universal platform for genetic research. 

“We have seen this trend continuing, more and more genetic partnerships are being done ... and more and more countries and national sequencing programs,” Grishin told MobiHealthNews, “They don’t have to reinvent the wheel can provide a platform.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Genome sequencing has become a hot topic in the oncology space. The pharma industry has increasingly used the data for research and development. 

“This collaboration pioneers a new business model in personal genomics that benefits both individuals and researchers such as those at EMD Serono,” Dennis Grishin said in a statement. “We want to help patients benefit from their data and also empower them to actively contribute to research. Our goal is to spearhead a more patient-centric approach to medical research where pharmaceutical companies and patients are working together to accelerate drug development.”

WHAT'S THE TREND 

This is hardly the first genome focused company to team up with pharma. 23andMe made headlines earlier this year when it inked an exclusive deal with GlaxoSmithKline to gain exclusive access to the genetic testing startup’s DNA database. 

This link between pharma companies and genomics companies isn’t without controversy. Data sharing transparency has been a big conversation topic in the field, with big names in politics including Senator Chuck Schumer raising a red flag about data sharing practices. Nebula was, in part, founded to curb these concerns. 

“Right now we have a chicken-and-egg problem we would like to break out of, because if you want to learn more from your genome, researchers have to have many genomes to analyze and better understand genetics. But for them to have many genomes to analyze, more people need to be sequenced [and] there needs [to be] motivation,” Grishin told MobiHealthNews last year. “We need to break out of this dilemma, and we essentially are trying to do that by eliminating costs completely and removing the privacy issues.”

Nebula is still in its early days. Only time will tell if this model can sway public opinion about consumer genomics companies and data sharing.