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Chinese DTC Genomics Firm WeGene Plans to Go International, Expand Cohort Research

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Direct-to-consumer genomics company WeGene of China plans to expand to markets in Southeast Asia while growing its population genomics research business at home.

The company, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, offers genotyping and whole-genome sequencing testing and analysis services to consumers and to research institutes conducting population genomics projects.

WeGene has been expanding rapidly over the last few years: In 2017, the firm had around $5 million in revenues, a number that it expects will triple this year. Meanwhile, its user base has grown from 8,000 customers in 2016 to almost 300,000 today. The firm is about to open a second laboratory in Hong Kong in order to offer its services abroad and said earlier this year that the new lab will use Illumina's microarray platform.

About a quarter of WeGene's approximately 80 employees are involved in genotyping, sequencing, and quality control, while more than half work in bioinformatics, machine learning, information systems, or mobile application design and development. The remaining quarter works in marketing, human resources, finance, and support.

The firm has raised more than $20 million in total from investors that include Magic Stone, Rising Capital, BGI, and Puhua Capital.

Zheng Qiang, the company's CEO, and Chen Gang, its CTO, founded WeGene in September 2014. Zheng had previously developed open-source software for building online knowledge communities, called WeCenter, that is used by many types of businesses, while Chen, who holds a PhD in computer science from Central South University, had been working at BGI.

WeGene started out as a data interpretation platform developed by Zheng and his team that enabled 23andMe customers from China to upload their raw data and obtain results in Chinese. 23andMe does not ship its testing kit to China, but Chen said that some Chinese customers had sent their samples to 23andMe while visiting the US. However, "at that time, there was not an interpretation system for them in Chinese," he said.

In early 2015, Zheng and Chen decided to turn WeGene into a business and to provide genomic testing services. Chen left his post as vice president of internet and cloud computing at BGI Tech to join the firm full time. After testing a number of microarray and sequencing technologies, he said, they settled on genotyping arrays, but none of the existing ones were optimized for the Chinese population. Thus, WeGene partnered with Affymetrix to design a customized array, and in November 2015, the company sent out its first sample collection kits to users. At that time, genotyping was outsourced to a number of laboratories, including BGI, Chen said, and the first reports were delivered to customers in December.

Customers receive information relating to their ancestry, genetic disease risk, and DNA relatives, Chen said, similar to the reports that 23andMe used to issue before the US Food and Drug Administration stepped in to regulate US consumer genomics companies in 2013.

Following some marketing activities, WeGene ramped up its testing business in the spring of 2016. It also started to allow customers of both 23andMe and Ancestry from around the world to upload their genotyping data for interpretation, which is optimized for those with Chinese ancestry. At the end of that year, WeGene had about 8,000 users.

Chen said there are several reasons why Chinese customers would get a different ancestry report from 23andMe or Ancestry than from WeGene. One is related to the type of algorithm used in the analysis, the other to the reference samples that were chosen to define a population. "Both the algorithms and the reference samples can affect the results," he said.

23andMe and Ancestry treat all Chinese as a single population, Chen explained, even though the country of 1.4 billion people has many regional genetic differences. WeGene, on the other hand, divides the population into different sub-populations and is collecting and analyzing reference samples for these with its partners.

Earlier this year, for example, WeGene and collaborators published a genotyping study on the Jing people, an ethnic group in Guangxi in southwest China, in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and last year, company researchers were co-authors of a genotyping study of individuals from the Tibetan-Yi Corridor published in the same journal. In a third study, published last year in Scientific Reports, WeGene scientists and their collaborators analyzed a Y-chromosome haplogroup that is common in East Asians and Southeast Asians more deeply, allowing for better resolution of male lineages in population studies.

Last year, WeGene opened its own laboratory in Shenzhen where most of its testing is currently conducted. It also struck a multi-year supply agreement with OraSure Technologies subsidiary DNA Genotek for saliva collection kits, and it added a DTC whole-genome sequencing service that uses Illumina's sequencing platform.

In addition, WeGene started to provide an API for third-party application developers, and by now, dozens of companies and hundreds of individuals have developed analysis and other services based on WeGene's open platform, which customers can order through WeGene. These include, for example, nutrigenomics firms that offer customized nutrition plans, Chen said. Overall, the model is not unlike that of Helix in the US, where customers can order various tests and interpretation services from the Helix app store. However, Helix provides developers with exome sequencing data, whereas most of WeGene's data is genotyping data, which is not suitable for inherited disease risk tests, for example.

WeGene also started to collaborate with research institutes in China on genome-wide association studies last year, using data from customers who agreed to participate in research and provided phenotype information. Chen said that several GWAS publications are currently under review at scientific journals, among them one on the genetics of skin sensitivity to sunlight, a study that WeGene conducted in collaboration with researchers at the Shanghai Institute for Biological Science.

This year, WeGene launched a second DTC whole-genome sequencing service that is based on BGI's sequencing platform. It also migrated its genotyping service from Affymetrix to Illumina microarrays, which Chen said dominate the DTC genomic testing industry, and plans to develop a semi-customized chip with Illumina that is even more optimized for the Chinese population. The company is already one of the biggest users of Illumina's genotyping arrays in China, Chen said.

To expand internationally, WeGene is preparing a new laboratory in Hong Kong, which will be outfitted with Illumina microarray technology and is scheduled to open in November. That laboratory will first provide testing services to customers in Hong Kong and later to countries in Southeast Asia, Chen said. WeGene is also collaborating with various research institutions to optimize its analysis for Southeast Asians, including Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations.

The company now offers three services to consumers. Its genotyping service, which currently generates the majority of its DTC testing revenues, has a list price of RMB 499 ($70) and comes with ancestry and disease risk reports. Going forward, WeGene might incorporate polygenic risk scores for various diseases in the analysis, Chen said, but this will require additional disease cohort studies in China to build prediction models.

WeGene's whole-genome sequencing service that uses BGI's sequencing platform costs RMB 3,999 ($580) and includes a number of reports. It also allows customers to download their raw data. WeGene has one BGI MGISEQ-2000 sequencer in its laboratory to provide this service but outsources sequencing that exceeds its capacity to BGI.

The whole-genome sequencing service that uses Illumina's platform costs RMB 9,999 ($1,500). In addition to written reports, it includes genetic counseling services and customers receive their raw data on a USB stick. Sequencing for this service is outsourced to other laboratories, Chen said.

The two whole-genome sequencing services deliver similar types of analyses, he said, which include all the results that the genotyping service provides, as well as carrier screening, blood typing, and other information. WeGene is working on additional reports, for example on inherited cancer risk and telomere length, he said. It also hopes to integrate other types of health information to estimate the risk for chronic diseases, for example, PET-CT results for Alzheimer's disease risk.

In an effort to branch out from its DTC business, WeGene began this year to offer its testing and analysis services to hospitals and research institutes for population genomics studies that focus on specific diseases. For this, research partners collect patient samples, while WeGene conducts the genotyping or sequencing and helps with the data analysis, building on its expertise in managing and analyzing hundreds of thousands of genomes. "We are not only providing genotyping or sequencing services to our research partners, but we are providing a total solution" that includes data management, storage, and model building, Chen said.

"This is a very important difference between WeGene and 23andMe, and between WeGene and some other DTC companies in China," Chen said. Going forward, the company hopes to collaborate on additional cohort studies for diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, he added.

Chen said WeGene has several competitors for DTC genomic testing in China, many of which are small and at an early stage of their development. "But for population genomics cohort analyses, there is almost no competitor in China," he said. "So, this is a very good opportunity for us."

He said the DTC genetic testing market in China, and Asia overall, is rapidly developing, and WeGene hopes to collaborate with other firms "to enlarge the market and provide high-quality products and services to customers."

WuXi NextCode, for example, launched a consumer service called HealthCode in China in 2016 that provides carrier status and disease risk information from whole-genome sequencing data. Last year, the company reported results from a pilot study involving 190 customers.

Chen said some aspects of WuXi NextCode's service are similar to WeGene's, but he noted that the two companies are also collaborating, on a blockchain-based data platform for pharmaceutical R&D called LifeCode.ai.

Thus far, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) has not been regulating DTC genomic testing services, so companies had to decide on their own how to proceed. Chen said he hopes the CFDA will eventually come out with some regulation for the market, though. "We have spent a lot of resources to ensure the quality of our product," he said. "We would welcome regulation from CFDA."

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