We chat with Dennis Grishin, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Nebula Genomics to understand more about Whole Genome Sequencing and why it should be considered. Nebula Genomics uses blockchain and privacy-preserving technologies to enable individuals to maintain control of their personal genomic data and share it securely.
What is the story behind the founding of Nebula Genomics?
We launched the company out of the laboratory of Professor George Church at Harvard Medical School. The laboratory of Professor Church has contributed a lot to the development of DNA sequencing technologies. In particular, those advancements led to a significant reduction in costs. The first genome sequencing cost nearly 3 billion dollars and today we can do it for less than 300 dollars. Besides developing the technology and doing research Prof. Church has been working for years on making personal genome sequencing available to as many people as possible.
Together we wanted to start a company that offers Whole Genome Sequencing, a much more comprehensive DNA test, at a very affordable price. The other issue that we realized existed was that people are very concerned about privacy when it comes to the direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies so we decided to start a company with a focus on privacy by deploying various technologies enabling users to stay in control of their data and be able to decide who gets access to their data and for what purpose it can be used.
Tell us a bit more about how Whole Genome Sequencing works?
Most commercially available DNA tests use a technology called genotyping. Think about it as reading a book, where the book is your genome and every page you would only read a single letter, that is essentially what genotyping does by reading a letter of every page trying to get an idea of the genetic information. Whole Genome Sequencing reads the whole book, every letter of every word on every page from start to end. It produces about 10 000 times more information by decoding almost 100 % of the DNA. The technology that is behind it is called Next Generation Sequencing. It is a highly parallel technology that reads millions of short DNA fragments at the same time which can then be reconstructed into the full sequence that is ~3.2 billion letters long. Imagine you could read every single sentence in a book at the same time, you would be finished in seconds, and in your head, you would stitch all the sentences together immediately know the content of the whole book. We of course cannot do that, but that is what Next Generation Sequencing technology does.
What sets Nebula Genomics aside from other companies offering genome testing?
There are not many companies that offer Whole Genome Sequencing. We distinguish ourselves in multiple ways. First, we offer the most affordable Whole Genome Sequencing. Second, our focus on privacy and the development of technologies that allow users to remain in control of their data. Third, our reporting is also quite unique. It is focused on enabling our users to get the most out of the comprehensive data by staying on the cutting edge of science. One of the core features of our reporting is the Nebula Research Library where users can learn about the latest science and how it applies to their genomes. Essentially new reports are added every week based on the latest discoveries.
How does the use of blockchain technology work?
Blockchain allows us to store access permissions to the DNA data which makes things very transparent. Essentially a user stores his permissions of what he allows to happen to his DNA data on the blockchain, when a researcher wants to access that data, they would write to the blockchain who they are and why they want to access the data. The user then sees this request on the blockchain and can either give permission or deny it. Our system reads access requests and permission from the blockchain and then makes the data available accordingly. That really ensures that everything is transparent, people know what happens with their data, who uses it, and for what purpose.
Why is it important for people to have their genome sequenced and share their data?
Sequencing is important for people personally as it provides the most comprehensive decoding of their DNA. It provides people the opportunity to learn more about their genetic makeup and potential health risks such as predispositions to diseases. If you find out that you are at risk for disease because of your genetics, you can take preventive steps such as more regular screenings. In regard to data sharing, the researchers need the data to better understand human genetics and possibly be able to develop new drugs. When researchers learn more about human genetics, we can also use that knowledge to provide better reports to our users.
What are some of the obstacles that deter people from sequencing their genomes?
Most people don’t understand what Whole Genome Sequencing is and how it is different from other tests, so a lot of the marketing and outreach that we do is focused on primarily educating people on how genome sequencing is different and what advantages it offers. Many people are deterred by our price of $299 which is actually extremely affordable for Whole Genome Sequencing, but people compare it to ancestry DNA tests which cost 3 times less because they don’t understand the difference.
What is next for Nebula Genomics?
Earlier this year we launched our 30x Whole Genome Sequencing test for less than $300. We are now working on raising awareness of the availability of affordable Whole Genome Sequencing and educating people about it. We also continue developing our reporting to enable our customers to do even more with their DNA. Furthermore, we are preparing to launch a collaboration with FamilyTreeDNA to provide a very comprehensive ancestry analysis to our users. We are also working with another partner to launch new privacy-preserving functionalities that will provide our users with even more control over their data.