Putting Your DNA in the Palm of Your Hands
Today’s world is on the brink of a genetic information revolution. Everything from your health, lifestyle, and family history has the potential to appear in your genetic profile. Genomic sequencing is a billion-dollar industry, and will grow as it mainstreams its product to consumers.
One of the most innovative genomic sequencing projects involves a “sequence once, query often” business model.” Essentially this means creating a database where users can submit their DNA to one system, and an infinite number of applications created by anyone from a startup to a large corporation can build onto the system and query the pre-existing data. A company called Helix is creating this platform. A platform that it hopes will allow them to become an app store for DNA.
Helix is a biotechnology company specializing in genomic sequencing alongside their parent company, Illumina. Some of the most prominent direct-to-consumer genetic testing businesses include 23andMe (ancestry/health risks), Gene By Gene (whole-genome sequencing), Color Genomics (health risks), and Veritas Genetics (whole-genome sequencing). The most popular consumer applications tend to relate to ancestry and health risks to different types of cancers.
All of these organizations revolve around the world of genomic sequencing, a very young and nascent world, especially in regard to commercialization of their product to mass-market consumers. Yet their progression and growth is proven by more DNA sequencing players entering the field, as consumer demand increases.
The sharing of information allows users of the Helix platform the ability to receive not only their initial genetic results, but also interact with their genetic profile in other innovative apps. These applications will allow users to receive a multitude of results related to their genetic profile, such as family history or one’s risk for a certain disease.
This open platform is what separates Helix from 23andMe and other competitors, where users have to send in their DNA samples for every individual test. Helix changes the game by storing users’ DNA and allowing them access to a wide array of genetic applications via the ‘Helix App Store.’
Businesses like Helix are looking to achieve these goals and more. However, the job does not lie solely on their shoulders, as they work to create a platform for other companies to build their own genomic sequencing applications.
Chairman of the Helix Board of Directors and former Illumina CEO, Jay Flatley, stated “companies won’t have to invest in starting a laboratory anymore. Instead any developer with a computer will be able to start a genomics company."
To catalyze growth, Helix has claimed the need for a top-selling app to entice early users to submit their genetic profile for future use and expansion to many more apps. However, early apps will likely be focused on “education, to do with nutrition, or sports-related,” argued Flatley, due to FDA regulation constraints.
Collaboration between government and businesses such as Helix, 23andMe, Color Genomics, Gene By Gene, Veritas Genomics, and other rising companies, will be essential for future growth and the success of commercial genomic sequencing.
Like all organizations, especially so in the tech field, these firms will have to prioritize security and privacy. In light of their work with valuable data and information, these businesses must work to combat and prepare for any potential attacks by stressing the necessity of cybersecurity expertise.
A database of millions of genetic profiles must ensure protection for all users, but as modern times have learned, no information is ever 100% safe from attack.
Are we willing to trade our private information for better and cheaper healthcare?
The ability to assess one’s susceptibility to certain diseases and health issues such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Cancer, and more could better prepare individuals and society to combat these risks. Giving the public access to their genetic profiles affords them the opportunity to assess future health risks and then work to adjust their lifestyles accordingly.
The potential to have a better understanding of society’s health risks can give medical professionals an incredible upper hand towards improving long-term healthcare for the ones they serve. But, will the trade-off prove worthy or are we just digging ourselves further into a world without privacy?