Genes2Me was initiated three years ago with the intent to bring personalized genomics and advanced healthcare analytic solutions to the scientific and clinical community as well as direct to consumers in India and worldwide. In this interview, founder CEO Neeraj Gupta discusses the science behind DNA testing for risk score assessment as opposed to blood testing and foresees a promising future for genetic-based, personalized and preventative health care solutions.
Please describe the story behind the company: What sparked the idea, and how has it evolved so far?
We identified a huge gap in preventive health care, wherein the Indian market has been highly dominated by blood testing to keep track of their current health conditions. People used to perceive blood tests as a preventive health care measure, but actually, they are not. Variations in your test result parameters signify that the disease has already kicked. Those tests are helpful in diagnosis or screening, but they are not preventive per se.
Genes2Me was the first company to introduce a comprehensive package of ‘Genes2fit’ and ‘Genes2health’ tests along with routine blood tests. We found a huge need for DNA-based preventive health and fitness solution which is easier and effective; A ”Once in a lifetime test”, where a healthy person can also benefit by getting the test done and take necessary measures by changing the lifestyle if there is some future risk in health conditions. Genetic testing gives you the power to make decisions and adopt changes in lifestyle for healthy living.
Every individual has a distinct genetic makeup, and they all respond to it differently. For example, two people may have the same diet and exercise pattern but experience different results. Going to that level of personalization can make a big difference in an individual’s life. They can tailor their lifestyle by changing their eating habits, exercise, work-life balance, and other factors, based on their genetic makeup.
Many of the current clinical diagnostic tests cannot give you the information or insight you’re looking for in terms of diagnosis. They are limited in providing a treatment strategy that the doctor can apply for the specific patient.
With our Genes2Me Clinical Exome sequencing test, you can learn about the genetic side of the disease and get a deep insight into the nature of the specific patient’s disease so the clinician can treat it accordingly. That is the second dimension of our service.
The third segment we focus on is prenatal screenings. Many genetic tests are available even before the child is born, revealing whether the child is at risk for down syndrome, for instance, or any one of more than five hundred genetic diseases.
These are the three main segments that Genes2Me is involved in, from diagnostics to preventive healthcare, to personalized genomics data.
What can you tell us about your company’s contribution to the battle against Covid-19?
Last year, as the pandemic started spreading worldwide, we actively got involved in being responsible Indian citizens in healthcare. The biggest challenge in India was the lack of Covid testing kits, which were to be imported from international markets, predominantly China because many of the other markets were only producing for themselves.
Genes2Me has been working at the front line from the very first day of the pandemic and contributed as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of Premium Quality Covid testing kits (ViralDtect RT PCR Kits, MagRNA Viral RNA Extraction Kits, and Viral Transport Media).
Our kits have played a significant role in the country’s fight against covid and have also been exported to many European countries such as Spain, France Italy, and African countries.
Our team is working tirelessly and has delivered more than 50 million COVID-19 testing kits to date. Recently, during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have further scaled up the manufacturing facility from 9 million/month to 6 million/week, to meet the sudden demand surge. We have contributed more than 20% of the entire Indian testing needs for RT-PCR during this time.
Moving forward, Genes2Me is committed to bringing scientific-based and innovative solutions for easy self-use, including Antigen test kits and many other products.
Currently, we are trying to sequence a large number of samples from COVID patients. We have seen that every individual reacts differently to this virus. A family of six may only have one person infected while the others remain unharmed. We want to find the genomic variations and responsible factors that play a role in this equation. With this information, we can uncover anyone’s level of susceptibility to Covid, compared to other individuals.
Another research that is just about to get introduced is our mutation screening assays. There are so many different Covid variants now, and they have all been responding differently to different sets of populations. Rather than interpreting each case individually, our solution is going to classify patients according to the Covid variation they have, whether it be the Indian, Brazilian, British, or any other Covid mutation. This information will help physicians and patients make better decisions and strategies than what’s prevalent today.
It could also be done by sequencing, but it takes longer and is more costly. Our solution can screen thousands of samples per day at a fraction of the cost of sequencing. We won’t be able to tell you if you have a new variant, but we will be able to classify all the unknown variants and keep updating the pattern as more data is revealed.
What kind of clients do you typically work with?
We have a large portfolio of solutions for different market segments. Our genetic health care and personalized genomics solutions are for direct consumers, dieticians, fitness trainers, gym experts, and many more. Then, for prenatal screenings, we approach pregnant women through their gynecologists and fetal medicine experts.
When it comes to genomic diagnostics, we are working with clinicians and doctors in all the leading hospitals. As for our Covid solutions, we are working both with governments and directly with end consumers.
While some test providers offer complex scientific reports, others oversimplify the results. How do you balance this equation?
We aim to start a personalized genomic segment that provides insight into your genetic makeup in a consumer-friendly manner. We want to bring added value into this process so that consumers find it useful and easy to implement in their daily lives. It’s not just a report that you open once in a while or memorize the headlines of, and carry on with your previous mindset.
For instance, when people discover they have a high probability of Alzheimer’s, it often triggers strong emotional reactions, so we need to be cautious and sensitive about how we convey that message to the patient.
In our reports, we try to give customers not only scientific findings but also nutrition-based guidelines that they can act upon in terms of what they can do as a standard practice. Our genetic counselors and nutritionists have created guidelines for people with a high risk for different health conditions and nutrient deficiencies. Based on their genetic makeup, they can have more induced diet plans that cover those areas.
Additionally, customers who book our tests get an opportunity to speak to a genetic counselor to gain a deeper understanding of their report and clarify their queries. It makes a big difference because once people get their results, they often have a lot of queries. Our genetic counselors help them understand the report and guide them with strategies they can follow. That is an exclusive service and as far as I know, no other company is doing that.
How definite are these test results? Are they reversible? What can be done to change this “verdict”?
That’s a great question that we often get from our prospective clients. It’s one of the most common queries we attempted to answer while building our service: how scientifically-backed is our solution?
We cover a maximum number of markers available in the research database and build our reports around them. If you have a high risk for a certain disease, you will probably be going through a channel of the various parameters, biomarkers, and genotypes that have ever been reported in scientific literature worldwide. The risk score is then identified based on the number of markers found. But even if you have a high risk from the genetic point of view, it may never erupt in your life.
For example, cancer either comes from an acquired lifestyle, or genetically either by inheritance from your parents, or a mutation formed by the unique combination of your father and mother. Most diseases are caused by one of these three things.
Diseases caused as a result of an acquired lifestyle can only be found by screening diagnostic tests, but when it comes to genetics, we can give you an idea about your level of risk.
If you can bring a lot of antidotes to a certain health condition through a dietary program, you can do follow-up screenings regularly, and either delay or eliminate the disease altogether. For example, if you have a BRCA gene mutation, you have a very high probability of getting breast cancer. Going for regular monitoring and picking it up at an early stage can help patients avoid surgery and literally save lives.
What would you say is required in order to standardize personalized healthcare and make it accessible to anyone?
Looking at the literature, there’s definitely a big scientific argument for genetic-based testing, the question is how strong is this argument for a doctor who has been practicing the same way for years?
One of the biggest barriers we have seen is that patients do not take this very seriously. They treat it almost as medical astrology. Given the increasing scientific backing and emerging regulatory guidelines, I believe it will take the center stage sooner or later.
Breaking down the barriers into categories can be very helpful. Some diseases have been classified and studied thoroughly by many different scientists and populations around the world, while others are still not very well characterized from the nutrition point of view.
Essentially, I think the purpose of research is to share the results publicly so that people can learn from them and make informed decisions.
How do you envision the future of your industry?
I think the Covid-19 outbreak has reminded people of the importance of health. People who have a good immune system were able to fight this virus with relative ease, compared to a vulnerable person. I think there will be a lot of individual-based changes in people’s mindsets regarding healthcare. It will be taken much more seriously around the world as compared to previous years.
The pandemic has taught us that one should invest in health care. That is what gives you the longest return. It’s a very common understanding and people invest in different things, which may not last as much as when you invest in yourself. Once people start realizing that, it can bring a difference in the need as well as the acceptability of these solutions. We can make smaller steps, starting with nutrition and fitness-based solutions, followed by some of the characterized diseases to back it up and keep learning from our findings. I think that is already getting to the main stage as we speak and it will get stronger and more dominant moving forward.
Another very important aspect is that data is easy to transport around the world. Companies that contribute their databases to the scientific consortium see great benefits because at the end of the day, the stronger the evidence, the sooner it reaches the mainstream. We have a lot of very well-characterized Indian databases for the Indian population. 23AndMe and two other companies have it for European and US populations. Integrating such companies’ and organizations’ databases can significantly enhance and speed up learning around the world, which is essentially what science is all about.