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Startup DNAsimple Aims to Provide Genetic Researchers With Donor Samples

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – For about half the cost of creating and managing an in-house genomic sample bank, DNAsimple will match genetic researchers with donors from its growing database of potential research subjects.

The startup launched late last year and currently has 200 individuals in its custom-designed database who are willing to provide saliva samples for genetic research.

"Once [a profile] automatically matches a study, then we contact the donor and ship them a saliva collection kit," CEO Olivier Noel told GenomeWeb.

Collection kits are equipped to store samples for up to a few months, if needed, which allows DNAsimple to gather the samples and then ship them to customers, who in turn perform DNA extraction and downstream processing.

"We're not disease-specific and we don't have the bottleneck [research institutions] have in terms of storing samples" for long periods of time, Noel explained.

DNAsimple is currently actively recruiting donors and aims to provide a diverse pool to customers, but the database will include people with rare diseases as well.

The company is also using publicly available funding information from the National Institutes of Health to find potential customers.

So far, the firm has a short list of sample collection kits it uses for different types of projects, as "there are slight differences between kits [and] some projects might be a little more sensitive in terms of DNA yield," he said. More efficient kits would lead to a slightly higher price per patient sample for customers.

The firm graduated from a Y Combinator fellowship in November and now has an office in Center City Philadelphia. In addition to running the company, Noel and COO Tarik Salameh are MD/PhD students at Penn State University, where Noel studies biochemistry and molecular genetics, and Salameh studies bioinformatics and computational genetics. A third cofounder, CTO Jeff Conway, is a computer scientist with expertise in algorithms and artificial intelligence. 

In addition to Y Combinator startup funds, the firm has been self-funded, and will pursue seed funding in the near future, Noel said.

Noel and co-founder Salameh had previously worked in personalized medicine research, and part of their inspiration to start the company stemmed from their experience in consenting volunteers and gathering up cohorts of extracted DNA samples.

A presentation at a recent genetics conference, however, jump started Noel into action.

"The [presenter] had a hypothesis about a genetic variant, but it was a rare disease," he said. "Through a support group, they were able to locate a patient in India who had that disease, and were able to get the saliva sent and sequenced – the joke was 'Facebook is the new way of doing genetics'."

To Noel's knowledge, there are no similar services currently available for researchers. The timeline of a project will influence pricing, but Noel said it will be between $75 and $110 per patient sample. Researchers would ultimately save on costs for staff and space to collect and store samples, which Noel estimated at about $225 for research and more than $300 per sample in clinical trails.

Once a donor is recruited by DNAsimple, that person becomes part of the database and can provide samples for many different research studies. The firm compensates donors $30 per sample each time one is solicited.

The firm actively recruits some donors who might be interested in helping genetic research by reaching out to genetic disease support groups. Noel said it also hired two staff members to find more donors, attracting them using Google Ads and Facebook. 

Donors seem to appreciate that they don't have to leave their homes to help research, and that they can also make a little money, Noel said.

DNAsimple is also interested in partnering with support groups and disease-focused organizations. "It turns out, some people want to give their sample but don't care about [the compensation]," Noel said, so the company is looking to partner such that subjects can donate the money rather than keep it. 

The firm currently has donors fill out a basic questionnaire for anonymous DNA donation. Once a potential cohort is identified, researchers have the option of providing additional questionnaires for the donors.

DNAsimple has also partnered with another startup, PicNicHealth, to potentially provide more complete medical records on donors who are willing to participate.

Also funded by the Y Combinator, PicNicHealth aims to help people gather their medical records from every healthcare provider ever visited since birth, electronically archiving those files in one database. If donors consent, that medical data could be included as part of the package with the saliva sample.

"A simple questionnaire will give you a glimpse of the current time point, but some researchers will be interested in having doctors' notes and more details," Noel said.

DNAsimple hopes to avoid privacy issues by not allowing any breeches of anonymity, even if a researcher were to discover information potentially related to a donor's health.

And unlike Ancestry Health or 23andMe — which have launched research arms that use customer genetic and family history data — DNAsimple will not be doing any sequencing or data analysis.

"They run into the same problems as research institutes and hospitals have; you're going to have a bank of data you need to maintain and take care of," Noel explained.

There is currently a handful of other companies, such as GenomeConnect, which can provide researchers with genomic data for research. "One limitation is how much you can really use or trust sequencing data from 10 years ago, or the validity of variants at low sequencing coverage," Noel pointed out.

Furthermore, anyone can register with DNAsimple, but people wishing to contribute to GenomeConnect must already have had genetic testing done, or have a family member who had, to register with them, Noel explained.

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