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UK Startup DNANudge Aims to Commercialize DTC Genetic Tests to Provide Nutrition Advice


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – London-based startup DNANudge wants to encourage consumers to make healthier choices at the grocery store by offering them food recommendations based on their genetic profile.

The company is working to commercialize technology that would rapidly analyze a set of around 50 SNPs related to a person's metabolism, how well they break down sugars and fats, their ability to absorb vitamins, and their predisposition to diabetes or obesity. Customers would download an app to their phone that would be able to scan the barcodes of food items and trigger an alert based on their genetic profile.

Chris Toumazou, co-founder of the company, told GenomeWeb that the goal is to "nudge" consumers toward making better food choices. Toumazou previously founded semiconductor-based sequencing company DNA Electronics and plans to incorporate some of the technology developed there into DNANudge's platform. The company currently employs 15 individuals and has raised between $4 million and $5 million. Maria Karvela, also a co-founder, will serve as CEO of DNANudge.

Toumazou said DNANudge is developing two versions of its technology, which he said is similar to a SNP array. The first version, which will be deployed in supermarkets and shopping malls in the UK on a limited basis beginning in 2017, will harness mobile phone camera technology.

Users will load a cheek swab onto a disposable cartridge. The SNP genotyping box, which will consist of microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technology, will be located within the grocery store and customers will place their disposable cartridge into the so-called Nudgebox. There will also be a place for them to attach their mobile phone, which will serve as the readout device. Customers will have to download the DNANudge app to their phone. The set of 50 or so SNPs will be fluorescently tagged and photographed using the customer's phone. That data will be converted into a barcode, which will be stored on the phone. The cartridge with the customer's sample will then be discarded. Toumazou said the company holds intellectual property around its methods for harnessing mobile cameras as part of the optical detection system. The test will have a 15-minute turnaround time, he added.

To develop this version of the technology, Toumazou said DNANudge has partnered with Cambridge, UK-based The Technology Partnership.

The second version of its technology, which DNANudge plans to launch near the end of 2018, will involve a home testing kit that will use technology developed by DNA Electronics involving a pH-sensing semiconductor for the simultaneous amplification and detection of DNA. DNAe described this technology in a 2013 study in Nature Methods. Results from the home test can be loaded onto a mobile app.

Both versions of the technology involve using a mobile device as a barcode scanner. A customer can scan the barcode of a food item and the app will integrate the customer's genetic information with the nutritional information of the scanned food to alert the customer about whether the item is or is not recommended.

Karvela has been working on building out the database and software that will take an individual's genetic information and relate it to specific food items, developing an overall report for the customer as well as specific recommendations for the products he or she scans. "We're relating the SNPs that have to do with metabolism of carbohydrates, for instance, to individual products to understand if a product in the long run is good for the individual," she said.

Toumazou said that the alert system wouldn't just be a blanket 'no' on all cookies, for instance, which he thinks would be counterproductive. "These products are selling in the market even though people know they are not good for you," he said. Rather, the goal is to make the advice a little more personalized. If someone is pre-diabetic, for instance, but wants to buy cookies, the app could suggest cookies that have less sugar in them, or a similar food that is the same flavor but potentially a bit healthier.

Customers will also be able to enter allergy data, so if they are allergic to peanuts, for instance, the app will take that into account when a product is scanned. 

Toumazou said the test itself will be inexpensive, around tens of dollars, but customers will also pay subscription fees.

In addition, DNANudge plans to collaborate with Imperial College London to conduct a clinical trial of its technology to see whether it has an impact on reducing glucose levels of pre-diabetic individuals, Toumazou said.

Toumazou added that one important facet of the company is that it does not collect or store customers' genetic information. The genetic data is delivered directly to the customer's phone or other device and not stored on the machine or sent to the cloud. Samples are collected on disposable cartridges and the data remains with the customer.

"People don't want to send their DNA off to labs," Toumazou said. "Having a test done privately takes away that worry. The genetic information is not exposed to anyone."