Ever since the Human Genome Project was completed, the price of genome sequencing has been free-falling. In January 2017, DNA sequencing giant Illumina unveiled a new machine that the company says is “expected one day” to order up your whole genome for less than $100. The White Paper on Nebula Genomics states that the opportunities around personal genome sequencing will soon create a genomic data market worth billions of dollars.
The team behind Nebula Genomics believes this market will have similar characteristics and challenges as any where data are involved. What’s the best technology to solve data security issues and to ensure that they get from the source to its end-user without any middlemen? You are right; it is the blockchain. The company, in which the guru of modern genomics, George Church, co-founder of Veritas Genetics is also involved, will use blockchain technology to enhance genomic data protection, enable buyers to efficiently acquire genomic data and address the challenges of genomic big data. Let’s remember this last expression, as we will hear about it in the future!
Problem to be solved
The availability of genomic data is low due to very few people having sequenced their genomes to date. It is a big deal; very large
genomic datasets are needed to establish correlations between
genetic variants and traits, such as disease predispositions.
Phenotypic data refers to information about all personal traits Including history of disease. Phenotypic data is used together with genomic data to identify associations between genetic variants and traits. In regards to phenotypic data, buyers are looking for three things: First, they are usually not interested in random datasets, but instead seek to acquire genomic data from individuals with specific phenotypes, such as particular medical conditions. Second, individuals who share their genomic data must also be willing to provide phenotypic data, since without it the genomic data is not particularly useful. Third, quality of collected phenotypic data is often uncertain, because it is typically collected through middlemen, typically personal genomics companies, which rely on self-reported data.
Pharma and biotech companies acquire genomic data from many different for-profit (e.g. 23andMe) and non-profit (e.g. UK Biobank) databanks. Hereby buyers encounter two challenges:
- Data acquisition logistics lack automation and are therefore very inefficient. Signing contracts, making payments and transferring data requires manual labour and slows down data acquisition.
- Genomic and phenotypic data acquired from different sources is often encoded using different data formats and standardizing across diverse datasets is very time consuming. As a result, pharma and biotech companies spend a considerable amount of time aggregating and curating across datasets
Although relatively few human genomes have been sequenced to date (~ 1 million), the challenges of genomic big data have already begun to
emerge, since sequencing of a single human genomes typically produces ~ 200 gigabytes of data that must be processed using compute-intensive algorithms. According to estimates, 100 million to 2 billion human genomes will be sequenced by 2025. This will create three challenges. First, many exabytes of disk space will be required to store genomic big data.
Second, network transfer speeds will limit data sharing. Third, processing and analysis of genomic big data is projected to take trillions of CPU hours
The traditional business model of direct-to-consumer personal genomics companies is illustrated below. People pay to sequence or genotype their genomes and receive analysis results. Personal genomics companies keep the genomic data and sell it to pharma and biotech companies that use the data for research and development. This model addresses none of the challenges detailed in the previous sections.
The Nebula model, shown below, 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. This model reduces effective sequencing costs and enhances protection of personal genomic data. It also satisfies the needs of data buyers in regards to data availability, data acquisition logistics and resources needed for genomic big data.
Data owners privately store, on the Nebula blockchain, their personal genomic and phenotypic data and control who can access it; while sharing data and receiving payments, data owners remain pseudo-anonymous.
I love their idea. Nebula is trying to fix a real problem with an actual use case for their blockchain.
Their major obstacle will obviously be to get the genome data in the first place. The fact that they partnered with Veritas, an established data sequencing company, is a great solution.
RGPD (Privacy law) in Europe has a great impact on blockchain which is, by design, immutable. I fear this will limit the expansion of Nebula to international markets.
Lastly, it is still unclear how they’ll store personnal data. Their white paper is referencing both blockchain and cloud solutions. As of today, storage on the cloud is still a cheaper faster solution than decentralized storage. In the case of cloud storage then the blockchain would access partial information which would be a better solution to my eyes. I am curious to see how they decide to move forward.
Team & Partnerships
It is good to finally see a company in the blockhain space focusing much more on the tech than the hype arround. Nebula’s team is small but coherent and skilled. There is a clear focus on biology over blockchain as most of the members are Harvard trained and experienced on genomics with the exception of one member dedicated to blockchain and one to growth.
I obviously love to see George Church, a well known genomic veteran, as a co-founder. He is bringing expertise, and, equally importantly, his connections in the space. Thanks to him, Nebula is partnering with Veritas which is currently sequencing genome after prescription.
The advisors are reflecting the team with half of them focusing on genomics and the other half in blockchain. I do like to see the blockchain expertise with the advisors oppose to the team, bringing knowledge without dedication. Lastly, they already have VCs within their rank, and I am more than confident they’ve got the connection to find more if needed.
Nebula has recently concluded a partnership with Longenesis. While few details have been available to the public, the goal is to complement genomic data from Nebula with longitidunal health data from Longenesis.
All in all, Nebula has a solid and balanced team; the size of it being one of their weakness, while it can help keeping flexibility in such an immature venture.
For the future they will need to secure partnerships (or funding) with major actors to facilitate data collection, usage as well as patient adherence to their program.
Roadmap & Marketing
In a few months, Nebula expects to welcome the first people onto its platform. It will soon become clear whether its model will succeed in recruiting millions to share their DNA. But overall, society does seems to be warming to that prospect. In 2017 more people took DNA tests than in any years before, combined. While Church expects that it will be the financial incentive that initially gets people to share their genomes, he thinks that over time people could begin to see sequencing as a tool that empowers them in the face of disease.
It is unfortunately hard to get information about Nebula’s roadmap as they haven’t yet published any cleared and detailed priorities.
I’ve contacted the team and got elusive answers which I don’t deem to be on par with the rest of their communication strategy.
On the other hand, marketing has been conducted well with an obvious focus on environement opposed to technology. It makes sense as the company just started and does not have the ressources to publish on their own technology or prowesses yet. Their communication on various social media is smooth & effective, managing to engage with potential customers or investors.
I encourage them to switch to switch to a more specific & focused approach before the end of the year as we’ll all start wondering what’s happening.
The big boys: 23andme; Ancestry; Illumina
Newcomers: Seqster; Encrypgen; Luna DNA; Zenome; Helix ; Sequencing.com
The main competition will come with Encrypgen, Luna DNA & Zenome, which have a close vision with fairly different approaches than Nebula. If I had to make an analogy, I’d say the former work like Google trying to solve small issues at a time while partnering with established companies; on the other hand the latter would be the Apple of genomics trying to accomplish everything by themselves. There is no right or wrong there as both ways works.
The more I look at the competition space the more interested I am with Nebula. The marketplace is slowly getting filled with companies offering partial or complete sequencing of your genome. Nebula is going a step further by bringing what’s lacking in the space with a potential solution to today’s and tomorrow’s struggles.
Nebula is a promising young company. They are incredibely ambitious and have a lot of challenges ahead and will have to prove themselves before getting us really excited (I am looking at you Theranos). Ambition cuts both way; in before there success or failure, it is a company I will closely follow and I am excited to see what they can bring to society and individuals with an offer that fits so many market needs.
What’s your thoughts on Nebula & genome sequencing from the masses?
Keep tuned for more reviews coming soon.
Thanks for reading.