Skip to main content

Church Startup Knome to Offer Consumers Personal Genome, Analysis, Anonymity

Premium
A new startup co-founded by Harvard geneticist George Church plans to bring the personal genome to customers willing — and able — to pay for it and promises to keep the information private and secure.
 
The company, called Knome, says it is the first to offer whole-genome sequencing and analysis services directly to consumers, setting it apart from other personal genomics startups like 23andMe and Navigenics, which plan to start out with genotyping services.
 
Initially, Knome, based in Cambridge, Mass., plans to provide personal genome sequencing for “a limited number of select individuals” but wants to broaden its business as the cost of sequencing comes down. It will also help customers who want to participate in research studies to do so without giving up their anonymity.
 
“The company’s business model is to focus on whole-genome sequencing,” president and CEO Jorge Conde told In Sequence last week.
 
Knome has already partnered with an undisclosed sequencing technology provider, he said, adding that it will be using a new sequencing platform, not one that is already commercially available. This rules out current instrument versions from 454 Life Sciences, Applied Biosystems, and Illumina.
 
The company, which was founded earlier this year as Cambridge Genomics and recently changed its name to Knome, plans to present more details about its business plans in mid-November. Conde would not disclose last week the number of employees it has or how the company is funded.
 
Knome will sell consumers a digital copy of their genome sequence along with a detailed analysis “where information is available,” Conde said. In addition, it will “provide an avenue” for customers to consult with a clinician or a genetic counselor. The company already has a “working relationship” with these professionals, he said.
 
In addition, Knome will offer its customers periodic updates on the analysis of their genomes, using a proprietary browser and analytical tools. “Giving folks the ability to stay current on future discoveries as they come along is also …very important for us,” Conde said. Customers can also retrieve their information and have it analyzed elsewhere, he said.
 
The company is not yet disclosing pricing for its services but Conde said that the cost of sequencing a human genome is currently “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.” Potential customers can contact the company by e-mail for pricing information.
 
Conde would also not specify the sequencing quality standards that Knome will adhere to in terms of completeness, accuracy, or coverage, but said that “the goal, of course, is to provide a high-quality copy of the genome.” He added that it will be “more than just exon sequencing” and will follow established “parameters of what’s acceptable in terms of coverage to be considered ‘sufficient coverage.’”
 
Two important factors in Knome’s business, according to Conde, are the cost of sequencing and keeping the information private and secure.
 
The current high cost of sequencing will likely keep customer numbers small at the beginning. “Initially, we are obviously going to target folks that can pay for a fairly expensive product,” Conde said. Knome will also restrict the number of customers it will select during its initial launch phase because of its limited sequencing capacity, which Conde did not disclose. But “over time, as the price of sequencing comes down, we will be able to offer it to a broader group of consumers,” he said.
 
In order to keep customer information private, Knome is employing “confidential information-management processes that have been successfully applied in the defense industry,” according to its website. Conde declined to elaborate but said that the company has “taken a lot of ideas around [on] how data can be stored to keep it very safe.”
 
“The way we store the information we think is very unique, is very novel,” he said. “This is very central to what we are trying to do from a competitive standpoint.”
 
Keeping information private, and enabling customers to decide how, and to what extent, their genome information is distributed to others might also make them more comfortable contributing their genome data to research. Knome will facilitate this process.
 

Knome will sell consumers a digital copy of their genome sequence along with a detailed analysis “where information is available,” and will “provide an avenue” for customers to consult with a clinician or a genetic counselor.

“We have developed a way to enable them to participate in studies without giving up their anonymity,” Conde said, without elaborating. “Those [customers] that wish to participate, but don’t feel comfortable doing it publicly, or having their data released, they will be able to participate through our network.”
 
The promise of anonymity is in contrast to Church’s Personal Genome Project, which does not guarantee participants that their information will stay private, Conde pointed out (see In Sequence 7/31/2007). Church and others have argued that anonymity will be next to impossible to promise in scientific studies because genomic data and medical information can be used to identify a person.
 
Although Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is one of Knome’s three co-founders — along with Conde and Sundar Subramaniam, an IT entrepreneur and Knome’s chairman — the company does not have any formal ties with the PGP.
 
Conde and Subramaniam, who met as graduate students in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, formed the idea for Knome when they chaired a session on the $1,000 genome at a technology conference at MIT in the spring of 2006.
 
Knome is not Conde’s first encounter with genome sequencing. As an MBA student at Harvard, he interned with Helicos BioSciences and with Flagship Ventures, a Helicos investor.
 
In addition to Church and Subramaniam, Knome advisors include Tony Sinskey, a professor of microbiology and health sciences and technology at MIT; and Jonas Lee, a managing partner and co-founder of Redbrick Partners, an investment management company.

The Scan

Pfizer-BioNTech Seek Full Vaccine Approval

According to the New York Times, Pfizer and BioNTech are seeking full US Food and Drug Administration approval for their SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.

Viral Integration Study Critiqued

Science writes that a paper reporting that SARS-CoV-2 can occasionally integrate into the host genome is drawing criticism.

Giraffe Species Debate

The Scientist reports that a new analysis aiming to end the discussion of how many giraffe species there are has only continued it.

Science Papers Examine Factors Shaping SARS-CoV-2 Spread, Give Insight Into Bacterial Evolution

In Science this week: genomic analysis points to role of human behavior in SARS-CoV-2 spread, and more.