The last month has been tough going for the consumer genomics industry with frontrunners 23andMe and Ancestory.com both announcing massive layoffs. However, new kid on the block Nebula Genomics is launching a consumer product today that will offer users whole genome sequencing for $299.
“We hope to really revitalize the whole space by making whole genome sequencing affordable, providing more comprehensive, dynamic user-driven reporting and by addressing privacy concerns that many people have,” Dennis Grishin, cofounder at Nebula Genomics, told MobiHealthNews.
The Harvard Medical spinout, cofounded by geneticist George Church — made famous for, among other things, his attempts to revive the woolly mammoth — differs from other popular consumer genomics companies because it will perform a 30X whole genome sequencing as opposed to genome typing. This allows for more comprehensives insights into the genome.
Traditionally this kind of testing was expensive; however, over the years the price of whole genome sequencing has been on the decline and is trending toward a point of actual consumer affordability.
“We are twice as cheap as the nearest competitors. So right now, the price is about $600 or $700 if you want to buy 30X whole genome sequencing. We are doing it at $299,” Grishin said.
Of note, many D2C genetic testing offerings, like 23andMe’s $99 basic service, are not whole genome sequencing but instead focus on only a few base pairs.
Nebula is also focused on addressing privacy concerns. The company is building a secure data management platform that will use blockchain technology and “privacy-preserving computing.”
“We have been deploying blockchain for more than a year, which has such an immutable access control layer that really documents all access permissions you give to the data. So the consumer can say, ‘I will allow access to research for my data’ or ‘I will allow general data sharing’ or ‘I don’t allow it at all.’ So we document things like that on blockchain in a immutable fashion to really create transparency and help build trust,” Grishin said.
The product was designed so that users could get more information about their genome and traits as additional research emerges.
“One of our reporting features is called the Nebula Research Library. What they do is a weekly update of research studies, and we apply [the research] to our users’ genetic information. The pace of research is accelerating every week. There is new research published by different associations with certain genetic variants and traits,” Grishin said. “So what we do is essentially enable our customers to stay up to date with the latest advancements and learn how they might be relevant to them.”
WHY IT MATTERS
During the last decade, consumer genomics companies such as 23andMe and Helix have been on the rise. 23andMe, for example, has caught the attention of pharma companies and consumers alike. In 2018, it landed $300 million in investments from GlaxoSmithKline in order for the pharma giant to gain exclusive access to the company’s DNA database.
However, privacy has been a major concern for users and legislators. In 2017, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote a letter to the FCC urging the organization to investigate and ensure that privacy policies are clear, transparent and fair to consumers.
In fact, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki noted privacy concerns as one of the factors that has led to declining sales.
Nebula has pitched its secure blockchain tech as a way to help remedy these concerns. Cofounders Grishin and Kamal Obbad have also been vocal about giving the consumer or patient more control of their data. However, as news emerges about layoffs, it is clear that it's still a tough market to enter.
THE LARGER TREND
In 2018 Nebula announced a different business model, where participants could have their whole genome sequenced for no out-of-pocket cost. Instead, they could 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. While the coin option is no longer listed on its website, it does appear to have a sponsored sequencing feature, which follows a similar model.
In June, it made its first pharma partnership with Merck KGaA’s EMD Serono. This early partnership will come in the form of a pilot program.
ON THE RECORD
“For the past 30 years, we've been working towards making personal whole genome sequencing affordable and accurate. Today, we have a big step towards this goal, reducing the cost of 30x Whole-Genome Sequencing to less than $300 and making it available to people around the globe,”Church said in a statement.