Between resurrecting woolly mammoths in a lab and tutoring the brightest of minds at Harvard Medical School, maverick geneticist George Church also powers a blockchain-powered genome marketplace – Nebula Genomics. With this Boston-based startup, Church and co-founders Kamal Obbad and Dennis Grishin, are working towards providing a holistic and affordable health data solution. They seek to enable individuals to get genome sequencing done, store the data safely and then sell the protected data to pharmaceutical and research companies in exchange for cryptocurrency.
Seeing merit in this ‘genomics for cryptocurrency’ idea, in August 2018, several venture capital firms offered up $4.3M in seed funding. At the same time, Nebula Genomics also announced a partnership with another one of Church’s startups – Veritas Genetics, a genome sequencing company. This association will enable Nebula Genomics to map genomes of their users in-house, without having to rely on any third-party labs.
Nebula – Making Genome Sequencing Affordable
The benefits of personal genetic sequencing are undeniable. Unravelling all the building blocks of individuals’ genetic makeup can aid in research and also help doctors predict, prevent and treat various illnesses with great levels of personalization. It can tell people when to have a baby, what diseases to expect in their life and even who they can or cannot marry. But for the longest time, genome sequencing has been an extremely expensive affair.
The first human genome sequencing in 2001, cost a staggering $3B and took more than a decade to complete. Ten years ago the figure was $10M per genome. Then in 2017, the cost of clinical-quality whole genome sequence plummeted at an exponential rate to less than $1000 owing to unprecedented technological advancements by Veritas Genetics. Since then, other companies (such as Tempus) have also followed suit, but the solution was still not within easy reach of the average American. Yet, in the next few years, the price is expected to drop to a very affordable $100.
Today, there are companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA that can decode genetic data for much cheaper – under $197. Unfortunately, these outfits conduct DNA sequencing ( versus whole genome sequencing) that allows for only small amounts of genetic data to be extracted. Also, such companies store and later sell aggregated data for millions of dollars to third parties – raising privacy concerns. What’s more, they don’t share any part of the profit with the users.
“Our mission is to build the world’s largest, most trusted genomic and health data marketplace,” claims the Nebula Genomics website.
The revolutionary startup offers complete genome sequencing at subsidized costs, from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources. All individuals need do is join the Nebula network and participate in paid surveys. These survey results help data buyers identify individuals with phenotypes of interest, such as particular medical conditions, who then offer to subsidize personal genome sequencing costs.
Then, through Nebula Genomics’ unique business model, individuals are incentivised to directly sell (rent-out) this data to interested buyers of their choice, through the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network. And in exchange, they get cryptocurrency (Nebula Tokens).
The icing on the cake is that these tokens can be used to buy insights about an individual’s genetic makeup from the Nebula Genomics listed research bodies. The insights help users understand how genetic makeup can affect their health and that of their progeny.
As advances in sequencing technology keep happening, sequencing costs will drop drastically. So much so, that soon Nebula Genomics’ token economy will enable people to fully pay for their personal genome sequencing. They could even make a profit from it. Ultimately, this will bring genome sequencing closer to mass adoption.
Building a Token economy
Nebula Genomics’ cryptocurrency economy has a fixed supply of Nebula tokens that can be exchanged for US dollars.
The company’s whitepaper postulates that Nebula tokens will “allow buyers and sellers to exchange value in the marketplace so that data buyers can subsidize the cost of genome sequencing as well as compensate consumers for data access”.
A lot of details about the tokens are still sketchy but they are unlikely to accumulate in value like bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Nebula Genomics is also still debating whether to distribute the tokens or go for an initial coin offering (ICO)
Yet, factors that will enable the Nebula network to grow are technological advancement, industry needs, and the consumer market.
It is expected that with advancements in technology, as the price of genomic sequencing drops, the token value would also drop. But, Grishin told Stat News that people are likely to try and make a profit by directly and indirectly buying tokens from individuals to resell them to data buyers.
Also, more data buyers will start using the Nebula network owing to the sheer affordability, which means more personal genome sequencing and interpretation will be performed. And ultimately more tokens will be exchanged to buy and sell genomic and phenotypic information. This entire chain of events will end up increasing the value of the network as a whole.
Obliterating the Privacy Conundrum
Since most DNA and genome sequencing bodies sell personal genetic data, security and privacy concerns remain core barriers to the flourishing of the consumer genomics space. Thus, very few people sequence their genome limiting data diversity, which further impedes genetic research and drug development.
Trying to circumvent the issue, Nebula Genomics has built a decentralized computing platform based on blockchain and distributed storage for biomedical data.
Nebula Genomics doesn’t store user data. Instead, users get to store their sequenced genome data on any cloud system of their choice, in an encrypted format. Also, the users get complete control over who can access it.
In fact, even after the voluntary sale of data, buyers don’t even see (in plain-text) nor are they able to download user data. They are only allowed to access and analyze the user’s protected data.
“The Nebula model… eliminates personal genomics companies as middlemen between data owners and data buyers. Instead, data owners can acquire their personal genomic data from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers,” said the white paper.
Growth of the Nebula Network
A study from Deloitte predicts the ‘transformative potential’ of blockchain’s ability to create nationwide health information exchange. Also, the genomics market is estimated to be worth about $27 billion by 2025.
Founded in 2017, this P2P genome marketplace is still not open to the public but plans to offer a beta version by fall 2018. While it’s too early to tell if Nebula Genomics will be the gamechanger in this pursuit of transformation, the concept behind the startup is definitely making waves.