Genomics meets blockchain: Harvard team featuring George Church launches peer-to-peer genome sequencing startup

George Church

George Church has long advocated for big data in genomics; his lab at Harvard piloted a project to collect and share volunteers’ genomic data for collaborative research. Now, with two other Harvard-connected founders, he’s taking the sharing one step further by incorporating blockchain, the ledger system most famous for powering Bitcoin.

Nebula Genomics emerged from stealth mode Wednesday with a whitepaper — not a press release — detailing its vision. In that world, anyone can sequence their genome at a low cost, glean insights from the results, and have total control on what they want to do with them.

Current personal genomics players like Helix and 23andMe adopt a model where the companies function as a middleman between individuals who want data about their genome and pharma companies willing to pay for that data to use in drug development. Nebula says it doesn’t want to be that middleman. Instead, the individual would be in the middle interacting with both Nebula and pharma companies on a Nebula-built platform.

To be sure, Nebula is not the first company to marry blockchain to genomics. Luna DNA, a San Diego startup founded by former executives of genome sequencing giant Illumina, is also building a DNA database with blockchain. The key difference is that Luna would pay customers (in Luna coins) for the data that it eventually sells to pharmas, while Nebula would stay out of the direct buying and selling, only offering an infrastructure in which genome sequencing would be essentially subsidized.

According to the white paper, this approach will result in lower sequencing costs (as companies would essentially subsidize individuals for the tests); more secure data protection (blockchain is encrypted and anonymous); and more efficient data aggregation.

“It’s a new approach to challenges of genomics, including sequencing costs, genetic data protection, data management, and genomics big data,” Church told STAT.

Dennis Grishin

So what would the process look like? First off, the actual sequencing will be done by Veritas Genetics, another Church startup. The payment is where it gets fuzzy. The idea is customers would pay for the sequencing data with Nebula tokens, its in-house cryptocurrency, which would be sold to pharma companies for cash. The tokens then circulate back to the customers as pharma companies use them to pay for personal data. It’s unclear how the customers would get the tokens in the first place; whether tokens would be of any value to someone who’s already had their genome sequenced also remains a question.

“We are not announcing any token sale at the moment,” co-founder Dennis Grishin told STAT. “A token is necessary for the functionality of our protocol, but we have not decided yet how they will be distributed.”

Nebula is now operating on an initial $600,000 investment from an angel investor, Grishin also said, and they expect to have raised an additional $1 million by the end of the week.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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