NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – A UK-based startup is offering direct-to-consumer proteomics analyses aimed at assessing users' aging processes and biological ages.
Formally launched at the end of 2015, the company, named AgeCurve, has recently begun offering its service to customers, said Attila Csordas, its founder and director. Csordas is also a bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute's PRIDE database, one of the major repositories for proteomics data, where he has worked for the last seven years.
The company uses mass spec to analyze customer saliva samples, returning quantitative data on their salivary proteomes as well as their oral microbiome. It is currently offering kits for £199 ($246), and each analysis covers several thousand of human and bacterial proteins, Csordas said.
DTC genomics companies using sequencing or arrays, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, have established substantial user bases, with, for instance, the latter company last year analyzing its 2 millionth customer.
The DTC genomics business received an additional boost last week when the US Food and Drug Administration granted 23andMe premarket authorization for 10 genetic health risk reports. As part of that authorization, FDA also provided rules that will allow 23andMe to add similar DTC tests to its menu without having to take them through the premarket review process. The agency said that it plans to establish this exemption for other DTC firms, as well.
In the proteomics space, though, DTC testing has yet to catch on in a similar way. In 2012, San Francisco-based start-up Talking20 announced plans to provide DTC proteomic and metabolomic testing using triple quadrupole mass specs, but the company has since ceased operations.
AgeCurve is one of the only, if not the only, DTC proteomics firms currently operating, but Csordas said he believed the "time is ripe now" for such a product. One the one hand, mass spec technology has matured to the point where experiments quantifying thousands of proteins are fairly routine. And, with regard to his company's focus on aging, Csordas noted the much-hyped arrival in recent years of companies like Google's Calico and Human Longevity, which are using molecular data to better understand aging and human lifespans.
"AgeCurve has something unique to offer here by opening a niche market for deep age profiles done with delivering personal proteomes," he said.
As Csordas acknowledged in a post on the firm's website, taking complicated data like a person's oral proteome and oral microbiome profiles and using them to assess a person's "biological" age and aging processes is far from straightforward.
"Figuring out a robust way to measure biological age and aging, and its relationship to chronological age is a big question," he said. Rather than provide users with a discrete biological age score, AgeCurve returns various datasets that users can explore.
For instance, the company's "circles" data format allows users to compare their profiles against others "in the multi-dimensional space of thousands of measured proteins and hundreds of bacterial species," Csordas said. The "stories" function, on the other hand, provides information on smaller sets of protein linked to a specific pathway or subsystem affected by aging, while the "pieces" report gives individual quantitative data on each of the thousands of proteins the service measures.
He cited as an example, the "stories" level data that a user's profile could present on the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway, which is one of the body's main systems for removing damaged proteins.
"To me, looking at the comparative levels of this machinery in the Gen P samples is one of the most exciting things, to see the striking differences [between customers]," he said.
Making this sort of high-dimensional data "truly accessible to users is one of the biggest challenges we face," Csordas said, adding that the company is banking on generating an initial customer base of highly engaged users. He suggested that the DTC genomics space and other business that are growing around the idea of the "quantified self," have helped prepare the field for his firm.
Csordas said that while the company aims to provide data that could be useful even when taken as a single shapshot, the ultimate goal is to generate longitudinal profiles tracking aging in users over many years, though it's uncertain at the moment what the ideal intervals for test might be.
"Molecular aging is not a thing one can catch on a daily basis, but we are talking about half years [or] years," he said. "The jury is still out on this one."
The company is using saliva samples in large part due to the ease of sampling and transport and the fact that this format has been established as convention by DTC genomics firms, Csordas said, but, he noted, saliva offers another potential benefit from a proteomic perspective in that it has a smaller proportion of highly abundant proteins than sample sources like plasma, making it easier for analyses to reach deeper into the proteome.
He cited a 2016 study published in Genome Medicine by the lab of Matthias Mann, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, in which scientists identified more than 5,200 proteins in the saliva of a single subject, making it at that time the "deepest body-fluid proteome recorded from an individual," they wrote.
The Max Planck researchers speculated that this might be due to the relatively low proportion of highly abundant proteins in saliva, noting that the "15 most abundant proteins in saliva make up only 32 percent of the total proteome mass," compared to 90 percent and 58 percent in plasma and urine, respectively.
AgeCurve has established a deal with an outside service company to do the mass spec work, Csordas said. User profiles will be generated on a Thermo Fisher Scientific Q Exactive instrument via label-free quantitation using MS1 intensities, he added.
Csordas did not say how many customers AgeCurve currently has, but he did say it has begun testing its first set of paying customers and cited the scientific, fitness, and quantified-self communities as major sources of these early users.
Based in Cambridge, UK, the company currently offers testing to UK residents only, but plans to begin offering the test in the US and Europe in the near future. The company is supported by seed money raised by several investors including himself, Csordas said.