HUBweek Change Maker: Mirza Cifric
CEO, Veritas Genetics
Mirza Cifric is co-founder and CEO of Veritas Genetics, the first company to introduce whole genome sequencing and interpretation to consumers and their physicians for under $1,000. He leads Veritas with the mission of driving global accessibility to genomic information as the company builds the first, large-scale service capable of sequencing and interpreting hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions, of human genomes each year. The company operates globally from its offices in the U.S., Europe and China and has been recognized twice by MIT Technology Review as one of the 50 Smartest Companies in 2016 and 2017. While not in the lab, Mirza enjoys helicopter-skiing, golfing and spending time on the North Shore of Massachusetts with his wife and four children.
Zoe Dobuler: What is your background, and how did you find your way to the field of genetics? What intrigues you most about it?
Mirza Cifric: I came to the U.S., to Boston, in 1995 from Bosnia where I lived through the war between 14 and 18 years of age. I was already a bonafide geek in Bosnia, so studying electrical engineering was a logical path for me. I studied engineering in the 90’s at the time that life science industry was changing both the landscape of Cambridge and the notion of engineering and science being separate disciplines. I wish I could tell you I had a crystal ball and that I knew that DNA would be the silicon of the 21st century, but the honest answer is that it was after meeting George Church that I was inspired, and found my entrepreneurial career path. Today that path is leading Veritas, the genome company. More broadly, it is DNA and the almost limitless opportunities from reading DNA (genetics) to writing DNA (synthetic biology) to using DNA for the kind of applications that today seem outlandish but in the near future will be taken for granted, such as storing data and modifying DNA of living cells (gene editing) for countless applications from improving health to reprograming living organism. You can see the full circle from engineering to biology and back.
ZD: Why should I consider sequencing my genome? How could the average person leverage their genetic data to make life decisions?
MC: Without understanding of your basic makeup it is very hard to optimize your health, quality of life, and ultimately longevity — if that matters to you. Genes alone do not always confer destiny: a combination of genes and environment do. One absent the other is taking a gamble that we are making the right choices. For example, taking medication. Why would you take any medication—or even worse give it to your children—if you knew that there is solid scientific evidence that certain medications may be ineffective — or worse—have adverse effect on your health on the basis of your genetics? We are all very different, yet very similar. One person drinking a half of cup of coffee becomes instantly wired and others can drink coffee all day. The basis for that is genetics. [You can] translate that example to medication, from the kind of medication to the amount we take. This is only one of countless examples of how genetics give us immediate, valuable, and actionable information to improve our lives. Other examples in our product myGenome include a number of highly actionable health conditions, over 170 medication reactions, carrier status for diseases we don’t have but may pass to offspring, to more infotainment things like traits and ancestry.
Most importantly, once you have your genome sequenced and digitized once, it does not change; this means we can provide you insight for a long time and you have a resource for life to go back to as science improves and our understanding grows, which is now happening exponentially.
ZD: You mentioned at HUBweek 2017 that it took 10 years and $3 billion to sequence the entire human genome for the first time. Now, Veritas can do that same work, with added analysis, for about $1000. What innovations allowed for this massive development?
MC: Many of the technologies and innovations from George’s labs have made this possible. Cost of sequencing has come down by a factor of a million over 12 years. That makes Morse’s Law look like a flat line when compared to genome sequencing cost. But perhaps the most important driver of the cost reduction is the value in knowing this information and the desire to understand it better, starting first with one human, which was the goal of the Human Genome Project, and moving toward subpopulations of sick people (Alzheimers’ for example) to understand disease. We are now entering the third and most exciting phase: sequencing millions of so called “healthy” people. This will further reduce the cost and make this valuable resource accessible to the world.
ZD: How do genome sequencing and big data overlap? What are the implications of sequencing genomes for other fields, especially machine learning and pharmaceuticals?
MC: We are going back full circle to why an electrical engineer is running a genomics company. To unlock the value of the genome at the scale of having millions of genomes done, we have to use massively parallel computers (the cloud) and machine learning and AI to help us understand correlation and causality between genetics and health. We already have a significant effort in our research team using ML to discover new causes of Alzheimers’ based on thousands of genomes of affected and healthy individuals. We are just scratching the surface, but we know there are answers we are seeking there.
ZD: Concerns around data privacy have been all over the news lately, and so naturally worries about sharing our most personal data — our genes — have arisen as well, in addition to questions about ownership. I even saw an article that mentioned the idea of patenting our own gene profiles. What is your take? How do you think we should be approaching these ethical questions?
MC: Very carefully and seriously. This industry and its mission of unlocking the knowledge in our genomes depends on building trust with the public: trust that the data is safe and privacy is protected. Without individuals participating, research will go slower than the alternative. For us at Veritas as a CLIA/CAP accredited lab with HIPPA compliant rules, the bar is already very high and we take it even further by ensuring individuals have consented to have their de-identified data used for research, which benefits them and in turn humanity.
ZD: Where do you see the fields of genomics and genetic testing headed in the next five years? The next 25? What excites you most about the future of these areas?
MC: I believe that in the next five years, genome sequencing will be $99 and everyone who wants to have access to the data will have it starting at birth. Next 25 years? I would answer by saying that we are entering the era of exponential growth in computing, biology, and artificial intelligence. I am comfortable making one prediction: Things that took 25 years to happen last century will be happening in one or two years 25 years from now. It will be the most exciting time in our history, until its replaced with even more exciting times. And oh yes, we better become interplanetary species by then, just in case.
The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.