NEW YORK – Nigerian genomics startup Syndicate Bio sees a competitive edge in fostering greater growth and competition in the nascent Nigerian precision medicine sector.
The company is positioning itself as a facilitator of collaborative projects, ranging from basic genomics research to clinical trials, with the end goal of developing the capacity to carry out large-scale genomics projects within Africa, without the need for equipment or expertise from elsewhere.
"We see ourselves as a platform where multiple parties work together to achieve a precision medicine and genomics future," said Abasi Ene-Obong, the founder and CEO of Syndicate.
Ene-Obong said that the company aims to leverage scientific expertise, local knowledge, and access to contacts throughout the continent to enable genomics projects and clinical trials in Nigeria and, eventually, all of Africa.
Although founded only earlier this year, Syndicate Bio has been busily seeking out a variety of partnerships with governments, pharmaceutical companies, and academics, all of which combine research goals with local capacity-building initiatives.
Recently, for example, the company announced a collaboration with Nigeria's National Institute for Cancer Research and Treatment (NICRAT) to launch the Cancer Genome Nigeria Project, the ultimate goal of which is to uncover the mutational frequencies of cancer risk genes in Nigeria. Ene-Obong noted these mutational frequencies are currently unknown due to the scant number of Nigerians who have participated in genomics research to date.
The collaborators are currently readying a pilot project in which they plan to sequence 20 cancer patients each from the five most prevalent types of cancers in Nigeria and taken from throughout each of the country's six geopolitical zones. According to Ene-Obong, the pilot project is expected to launch and be completed in 2024.
Knowing these frequencies, he continued, can help the country make more rational policy decisions surrounding how cancer is diagnosed and treated.
"And from a research perspective," he said, "it also tells us what mutational frequencies look like and whether there are new mutations or variants that we should be aware of. It might be, for example, that a good portion of breast cancer patients in Nigeria have a mutational signature that you don't find in most Caucasian populations." He noted that current breast cancer treatment guidelines in Nigeria are based on research done in predominantly Caucasian populations.
After the 100-patient pilot, Syndicate and NICRAT plan to expand the study to "thousands" more patients encompassing additional cancer types and to include a wider variety of sequencing tests, such as minimal residual disease assays.
Ene-Obong hopes that data from the Cancer Genome Nigeria Project will attract more pharmaceutical companies to the country by providing them with a rich genomic resource that is representative of Nigeria's diverse population.
In parallel to generating data, Syndicate and NICRAT will also work together to address the number of limited personnel trained in precision medicine by providing supplemental training to participating physicians. Syndicate aims to make education in precision medicine a feature of all its collaborations as part of its overall goal of building up local expertise.
"We have pharma companies who, as part of the proposed collaboration, are putting aside money to fund programs for capacity building," Ene-Obong said. For example, he said that one potential collaborator the company has been speaking with has a genetic counseling program that might be used to train Nigerians in genetic counseling, thus avoiding some of the expenses and logistical challenges of building an entirely new training program from scratch.
Given the short period of time that Syndicate has been active, most proposed collaborations have yet to be formalized and as such, Ene-Obong said that it is too early to name potential collaborators, although the company plans to announce at least one academic collaboration around the beginning of 2024.
In addition to NICRAT, the company is collaborating with the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR). While Ene-Obong said that the two organizations are working on "a few" prospective studies, the project that is the furthest along centers on developing diagnostic and monitoring tests for hepatitis B.
"Hepatitis B … is highly prevalent in Nigeria and still has a significant unmet need for treatment globally," Ene-Obong said. "NIMR, as the foremost research institution of the country, will leverage their network to drive study participation while Syndicate Bio will be handling the sequencing and data analysis."
The NIMR also worked with Ene-Obong's previous company, 54gene, as a participant in the Nigerian 100K Genome study. Although 54gene recently shuttered, Ene-Obong said that the Non-Communicable Diseases Genetic Heritage Study consortium behind that study remains operational and continues to further the project's goals.
Ene-Obong declined to comment on the demise of 54gene, saying that he had "parted ways" with the company prior to it folding.
He noted, though, that when 54gene launched in 2019, it was the only genomics company of its scale in Africa.
"This meant that the company had to carry the ball on its own," he said.
During the pandemic, 54gene quickly transitioned its lab to conduct COVID-19 testing, capitalizing on the surging demand at that time. As COVID-19 receded and testing demand fell, however, the company found itself having to contract. Its valuation had fallen by more than $100 million and had laid off some 30 percent of its workforce by the time Ene-Obong, who also founded the company, stepped down as CEO in August of last year. Another 55 percent of 54gene's workforce was laid off in the two months following his exit. The company shuttered earlier this year.
Ene-Obong did say his experience at 54gene had taught him many lessons that he hopes to bring to Syndicate Bio. His key takeaway, he said, was that to become sustainable in Africa's current biotechnology environment, a company needs to build an ecosystem around it that allows space for, and makes use of, other players.
To that end, Syndicate Bio focuses on partnerships and training programs as part of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats strategy toward sustainability and scale.
Syndicate Bio, along with any other emerging Nigerian biotechs, is also poised to benefit from infrastructure improvements that the country has experienced over the last five years or so, according to Ene-Obong.
"The COVID-19 crisis forced many logistics and non-logistics companies to strengthen their supply chain capabilities in Africa by investing in infrastructure and products that align with the unique peculiarities of the African environment," he said.
Local production of important supplies like dry ice and certain laboratory reagents, he explained, have "drastically improved" post-pandemic, while companies like Illumina and Thermo Fisher have been working to expand their capabilities in Africa through efforts such as setting up local warehouses and training and employing more deployable technical personnel such as field application scientists and engineers.
Ene-Obong pointed toward one Nigerian logistics startup called Figorr, which developed a real-time cold chain shipment monitoring product, as an example of emerging local capabilities.
"Compared to five years ago," he said, "Africa is becoming a lot more cohesive, [making] supply chain, equipment maintenance, consumable deliveries a lot more cost-effective than what it used to be."
Syndicate Bio hopes to leverage all of this emerging local knowledge, technological, and logistical capacity to build a next-generation sequencing lab capable of handling "most of the sequencing needs of the continent," Ene-Obong said.
The company currently operates one sequencing lab in Nigeria and is in the process of establishing another one in "another region" of Africa.
The current lab can perform whole-genome sequencing, whole-exome sequencing, and targeted sequencing, including oncology NGS panel tests. The company is working to set up a lab capable of population-scale genomics projects throughout Africa.
"What we find in Nigeria is not just going to be applicable to Nigeria," Ene-Obong said. "It's going to affect health, diagnostics, and treatment in multiple countries."