NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – DNATix earlier this week announced its partnership with Mapmygenome, an Indian consumer genomics company, providingg the blockchain technology firm with a gateway to the Indian genetic services market.
The deal is another milestone for the Israeli firm, which recently claimed not only the transfer of a genetic sequence using blockchain technology, but the transfer of a complete Y chromosome. The chromosome in question belonged to Craig Venter.
Tel Aviv-based DNATix is also in the process of raising $30 million to build its blockchain infrastructure, and will soon establish a nonprofit to oversee the administration of its blockchain ecosystem worldwide.
"When it comes to DNA and genetic information, one of the biggest obstacles is the size of the data," said DNATix CEO and CTO Ofer Lidsky. "Blockchain technologies currently don't have the ability to handle a large amount of information," he said. "We understood that at the very early stage, and we are building a dedicated blockchain ...that will address the problems needed for genetics of security, privacy, anonymity, data size, and more."
Lidsky co-founded the company with CSO Tal Sines, a molecular biologist and patent attorney, a decade ago. The firm — which currently employs around 20 people, most of them software developers — has always been focused on delivering secure genetic tests to customers, but began to integrate blockchain technologies into its ecosystem roughly a year ago, setting out to create a system that permits the analysis, storage, and transfer of digitized DNA sequences through a consumer-facing platform.
Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. However, the genomics community has with some enthusiasm began to adopt the technology for the storage and sharing of information, with companies like Shivom, Nebula Genomics, Luna DNA and others developing blockchain ecosystems and announcing partnerships around their offerings.
"Blockchain provided the possibility to perform genetic services and research in a very thorough ... and anonymous way, which is a game changer for direct-to-consumer genetics," said Lidsky. "We know from our own experience that one of the biggest problems in direct-to-consumer genetics is privacy and security," he said. "Where does your DNA go? Who has access to that? Once we understood that we had the opportunity to offer anonymous genetic services, we started to build an ecosystem for genetics based on blockchain technology."
The company laid out its vision in a white paper published in April. DNATix aims to provide customers with anonymous and encrypted genetic services through its platform. The system relies on a crypto token, dubbed the DNATix token, that rewards users who upload genomic sequences and participate in the system. Once in the ecosystem, they can also order genetic tests and get referrals to providers for various genetic conditions. DNATix claims in the white paper its platform will enable users to "take ownership of their genetic data," and "manage their health today, moving from reactive to preventive medicine."
While DNATix has demonstrated the feasibility of its system, not only through the successful transfer of genetic sequences and Craig Venter's chromosome, but also through the release in May of a open-source DNA compression tool on GitHub, the company will require $30 million over the next five years to realize its business plan, Lidsky said. The firm began raising the funding through sale of its tokens in March, a month before it released its white paper.
According to the firm, its DNAtix token has "smart contracts" built into it that enable the anonymous and secure analysis, transfer, and storage of DNA sequences. The company also offers a method of payment, called the DNAtix wallet, that supports the anonymous purchase of genetic services.
Lidsky did not provide a date for when the company hopes to achieve its funding goal. "The main thing we need funding for is of course technology development, and also deployment of the blockchain," he said. "This is a complicated process that needs to be done in certain stages," Lidsky added. "We will have partners around the world to create a blockchain that will be a solution for a large number of populations."
One of those partners is Mapmygenome, with which DNATix has partnered to provide additional security and privacy services for the Indian consumer genomics company's menu of direct-to-consumer tests. As part of the arrangement, Mapmygenome will also employ DNATix's blockchain technology to enable scientists to remotely access and use anonymous data in their research, the companies said. Lidsky said that the deal would provide DNATix with access to the genetic services sector in India, which he described as a "huge market" for the company.
Mapmygenome CEO Anu Acharya in turn said this week that the Hyderabad-based firm opted to work with DNATix over other blockchain technology firms in the space given the founders' background in genetics.
"They understand the space," Acharya said. She added that DNATix was the only blockchain technology firm that approached Mapmygenome with a "working demonstration" of their ecosystem, and noted that the firm has been able to successfully compress genomes.
For Mapmygenome, which offers a wide variety of genetic tests to Indian customers, the relationship with DNATix might also eventually serve as a vehicle for reaching other markets outside the subcontinent. "We have been looking at the possibility of expanding globally," noted Acharya, "and this gives us more options to do that."
DNATix and Mapmygenome are planning to run initial, pilot samples next month in the blockchain ecosystem. If that goes well, Acharya said that Mapmygenome will add samples. "We have to see when there are lots of genomes in the blockchain what will happen," she said. Acharya added that Mapmygenome is adding such capabilities to provide a layer of security and privacy for its customers. "In the end, I think if customers want that, we should be able to offer them that," she said.
Lidsky said that DNATix is in discussions with other potential partners similar to Mapmygenome that might make use of its blockchain ecosystem. However, he noted that in the long run, the company will not manage the blockchain. Rather it will be deployed by a nonprofit organization that DNATix will soon establish in Zug, Switzerland, widely regarded as a hub for cryptocurrencies.
"We don't think a commercial entity should be the owner of huge amounts of genetic information," said Sines, the CSO. "It should be held by the person itself, and if they wish to share it with the community, it should be held by a nonprofit organization," he said.
In the future, DNATix will develop genetic applications for the platform, while providing technical support and developing services for different players in the ecosystem, Sines said. He said that companies that wish to participate might develop genetic distributed applications, which he called gdapps, for users. These could consist of services to allow people to have their genomes sequenced anonymously, or genetic genealogy tools, such as those offered by Ancestry.com and My Heritage.
"If another company comes in that has expertise in another area of genetic testing, they will have their gdapp on the blockchain as a revenue source for them," Sines said. DNATix also aims to offer a menu of tests via the blockchain, providing the company with income.
"We are also developing a suite of genetic tests, which are digital, where you can upload your full genome sequence or exome and perform genetic tests," Lidsky said of the firm's intentions.
In terms of the genetic tests, Lidsky said that DNATix will partner with certified genetic labs that have their own panels of tests. "Some will be health related, others will be linked to ancestry and genealogy tests," he said. "As it evolves, it will be more related to lifestyle and less from the medical world."
DNATix has already launch a pilot of an anonymous full-genome sequencing service via its platform, Lidsky pointed out, but he said that the company still needs to further develop its blockchain, as well as the portal for the user before the system can be considered ready to launch. It also has a working prototype of its wallet. But it is deals with companies like Mapmygenome that will also enable DNATix to improve its system.
"It's important for us to have more people using the technology," said Sines. "As more people use it, we will introduce improvements into the working pilot that we have," he said. The company also has to stay afoot of offerings from its rivals like Shivom and Nebula. Shivom, for instance, has announced deals with partners in India and in Africa in recent months.
"There is a lot of interest," said Sines of the competition. "People have identified that blockchain is suitable for genetics because of security, and also the possibility of offering higher levels of anonymity," he said. "It is the technology with the most potential to provide strong anonymity for people." He also said that the reduction in the cost of generating full genome sequences is also creating interest in the technology. "This is a force that is pushing genomics forward," said Sines. "That answers the questions of why now and why blockchain genetics."