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Harvard Geneticist Launches DNA-Fueled Blockchain Startup

Last Updated September 23, 2020 12:03 PM
Gerelyn Terzo
Last Updated September 23, 2020 12:03 PM

Nebula Genomics will have its own coin and go head to head with Ancestry.com and Google-backed 23andMe. George Church, a professor at Harvard and MIT, is taking a different tack than his genetics testing rivals. He’s developed a token-fueled system on the blockchain that monetizes DNA to incentivize members to participate in genome sequencing. It keeps personal DNA data in the hands of the individual — not big pharma — letting them choose if they want to share and monetize that data for research purposes.

Nebula is built on Blockstack and is driven by Ethereum smart contracts on the blockchain. The Nebula ecosystem is fueled by the Nebula token, which is the currency by which individuals pay for their personal genome sequencing and related data. Meanwhile, data buyers use the tokens, which they can purchase with fiat currency, to acquire access to DNA data.

Based on Professor Church’s research, no other human genomics company even comes close to delivering on what Nebula Genomics can do –

Nebula White Paper

Solving a Biological Problem

There are a host of benefits to the genome sequencing process, not the least of which involves family planning. Whole genome sequencing can reveal the risks of passing on a genetic disorder to a child. Meanwhile, DNA research also gives people the opportunity to “take preventative action” to prevent a disease, such as liver failure or cancer, from worsening.

Professor Church is looking to solve a problem in science surrounding “small data quantities, data fragmentation, a lack of standardization and slow data acquisition,” as per his website. He’s touting features such as the decentralized nature of the blockchain, which in addition to slashing costs and bolstering privacy lets members own their own DNA data without any third parties.

Till now, the business model of these companies has been to separate ownership of the genomics data from the individual, giving everyone but the individual  — mainly DNA testing companies and the pharmaceutical industry — a way to monetize the data.

For instance, the individual purchases a DNA kit from a shop such as venture-backed 23andMe and 85% of the time  agrees to share their personal genomics data for research purposes. Individuals are not only sharing their personal data but also giving up ownership rights to the company, in this example 23andMe, who then can profit from it via pharmaceutical industry-driven research.

DNA testing, however, has come a long way, from billions of dollars for human genome sequencing at about the turn of the century to hundreds today. Nebula offers genome sequencing for $1,000 and exome sequencing for $300, price points that are expected to drop as “DNA sequencing becomes cheaper,” as per the company.

According to Nebula, personal genome sequencing has the power to facilitate “better diagnosis, disease prevention and personalized therapies.” When used for research, the DNA data enables a more detailed classification system and new drugs, “creating a genomics data market worth billions,” as per the white paper.

Professor Chruch points to open protocol that gives scientists the ability to “aggregate standardized data” across people and databases. It’s unclear whether he plans on launching an upcoming ICO.