Perhaps you're one of the 12 million people who has spit into a tube in recent years to learn the secrets in your genetic code, like your ancestry, your health risks, or your carrier status for certain diseases. If you haven't participated in direct-to-consumer genetic testing, you may know someone who has.
It's for people who want more control over their genetic data--plus a share of the proceeds when and if that data is used.
Mountains of genomic data have been piling up steeply over the last several years, but according to some experts, not enough research and drug discovery is being done with the data collected, and customers rarely have a say in how their data is used. Now, a slew of ambitious startup companies are bringing together the best of blockchain technology and human genomics to help solve these problems.
But First, Why Is Your Genome So Valuable?
Access to genetic information is an obvious boon to scientific and medical progress. In the right hands, it has the potential to save lives and reduce suffering — by facilitating the development of better, safer, more targeted treatments and by shedding light on the role of genetics in countless diseases and medical conditions.
Research requiring access to direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomic data is already well underway. For example, 23andMe, the popular California-based DTC genetic testing company, has published 107 research articles so far, as of this May, using data from their five million-plus customers around the world. Their website states that, on average, of the 80 percent of their customers who have opted to share their genomic data for research purposes, each "individual contributes to 200 different research studies."
And this July, a new collaboration was announced between 23andMe and GlaxoSmithKline, the London-based pharmaceutical company. GlaxoSmithKline will be using data from 23andMe customers to develop new medical treatments, while 23andMe will receive $300 million from the four-year deal. Both companies are poised to profit significantly from their union.
Should 23andMe's customers share in the gains? Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, believes they should. "Are they going to offer rebates to people who opt in, so their customers aren't paying for the privilege of 23andMe working with a for-profit company in a for-profit research project?" Pitts told NBC. So far, 23andMe has not announced any plans to share profits with their customers.
But outside of such major partnerships, many researchers are frustrated by the missed opportunities to dig deeper into the correlations between genetics and disease. That's because people's de-identified genomic information is "essentially lying fallow," siloed behind significant security blockades in the interest of preserving their anonymity. So how can both researchers and consumers come out ahead?
Putting Consumers Back in Control
For people who want more control over their genetic data -- plus a share of the proceeds when and if that data is used -- a few companies have paired consumer genomics with blockchain technology to form a new field called "blockchain genomics." Blockchain is a data storage technology that relies on a network of computers, or peer-to-peer setup, making it incredibly difficult to hack. "It's a closed loop of transactions that gets protected and encrypted, and it cannot be changed," says Tanya Woods, a blockchain thought leader and founder of Kind Village, a social impact technology platform.
The vision is to incentivize consumers to share their genomic data and empower researchers to make new breakthroughs.
"So if I agree to give you something and you agree to accept it, we make that exchange, and then that basic framework is captured in a block. … Anything that can be exchanged can be ledgered on blockchain. Anything. It could be real estate, it could be the transfer of artwork, it could be the purchase of a song or any digital content, it could be recognition of a certification," and so on.
The blockchain genomics companies' vision is to incentivize consumers to share their genomic data and empower researchers to make new breakthroughs, all while keeping the data secure and the identities of consumers anonymous.
Consumers, or "partners" as these companies call them, will have a direct say regarding which individuals or organizations can "rent" their data, and will be able to negotiate the amount they receive in exchange. But instead of fiat currency (aka "regular money") as payment, partners will either be remunerated in cryptocurrency unique to the specific company or they will be provided with individual shares of ownership in the database for contributing DNA data and other medical information.
Luna DNA, one of the blockchain genomics companies, "will allow any credible researcher or non-profit to access the databases for a nominal fee," says its president and co-founder, Dawn Barry. Luna DNA's infrastructure was designed to embrace certain conceptions of privacy and privacy law "in which individuals are in total control of their data, including the ability to have their data be 'forgotten' at any time," she said. This is nearly impossible to implement in pre-existing systems that were not designed with full control by the individual in mind.
One of the legal instruments to which Barry referred was the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which "states that the data collected on an individual is owned and should be controlled by that individual," she explained. Another is the California Privacy Act that echoes similar principles. "There is a global trend towards more control by the individual that has very deep implications to companies and sites that collect and aggregate data."
David Koepsell, CEO and co-founder of EncrypGen, told Forbes that "Most people are not aware that your DNA contains information about your life expectancy, your proclivity to depression or schizophrenia, your complete ethnic ancestry, your expected intelligence, maybe even your political inclinations" — information that could be misused by insurance companies and employers. And though DTC customers have been assured that their data will stay anonymous, some data can be linked back to consumers' identities. Blockchain may be the answer to these concerns.
Both blockchain technology and the DTC genetic testing arena have a glaring diversity problem.
"The security that's provided by blockchain is tremendous," Woods says. "It's a significant improvement … and as we move toward more digitized economies around the world, these kinds of solutions that are providing security, validity, trust — they're very important."
In the case of blockchain genomics companies like EncrypGen, Luna DNA, Longenesis, and Zenome, each partner who joins would bring a digital copy of their genetic readout from DTC testing companies (like 23andMe or AncestryDNA). The blockchain technology would then be used to record how and for what purposes researchers interact with it. (To learn more about blockchain, check out this helpful visual guide by Reuters.)
Obstacles in the Path to Success
The cryptocurrency approach as a method of payment could be an unattractive lure to consumers if only a limited number of people make transactions in a given currency's network. And the decade-old technology underlying it -- blockchain -- is not yet widely supported, or even well-understood, by the public at large.
"People conflate blockchain with cryptocurrency and bitcoin and all of the concerns and uncertainty thereof," Barry told us. "One can think of cryptocurrency as a single expression of the vast possibilities of the blockchain technology. Blockchain is straightforward in concept and arcane in its implementation."
But blockchain, with its Gini coefficient of 0.98, is one of the most unequal "playing fields" around. The Gini coefficient is a measure of economic inequality, where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 represents perfect inequality. Around 90 percent of bitcoin users, for example, are male, white or Asian, between the ages of 18 and 34, straight, and from middle and upper class families.
The DTC genetic testing arena, too, has a glaring diversity problem. Most DTC genetic test consumers, just like most genetic study participants, are of European descent. In the case of genetic studies, this disparity is largely explained by the fact that most research is done in Europe and North America. In addition to being over 85 percent white, individuals who purchase DTC genetic testing kits are highly educated (about half have more than a college degree), well off (43 percent have a household income of $100,000 or more per year), and are politically liberal (almost 65 percent). Only 14.5 percent of DTC genetic test consumers are non-white, and a mere 5 percent are Hispanic.
Since risk of genetic diseases often varies greatly between ethnic groups, results from DTC tests can be less accurate and less specific for those of non-European ancestry — simply due to a lack of diverse data. The bigger the genetic database, wrote Sarah Zhang for The Atlantic, the more insights 23andMe and other DTC companies "can glean from DNA. That, in turn, means the more [they] can tell customers about their ancestry and health…" Though efforts at recruiting non-white participants have been ongoing, and some successes have been made at improving ancestry tools for people of color, the benefits of genomic gathering in North America are still largely reaped by Caucasians.
So far, it's not yet clear who or how many people will choose to partake in the offerings of blockchain genomics companies.
So one chief hurdle for the blockchain genomics companies is getting the technology into the hands of those who are under-represented in both blockchain and genetic testing research. Women, in particular, may be difficult to bring on board the blockchain genomics bandwagon — though not from lack of interest. Although women make up a significant portion of DTC genetic testing customers (between 50 and 60 percent), their presence is lacking in blockchain and the biotech industry in general.
At the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami earlier this year, only three women were on stage, compared to 84 men. And the after-party was held in a strip club.
"I was at that conference," Woods told us. "I don't know what happened at the strip club, I didn't observe it. That's not to say it didn't happen … but I enjoyed being at the conference and I enjoyed learning from people who are experimenting in the space and developing in it. Generally, would I have loved to see more women visible? Of course. In tech generally I want to see more women visible, but there's a whole ecosystem shifting that has to happen to make that possible."
Luna's goal is to achieve equal access to a technology (blockchain genomics) that could potentially improve health and quality of life for all involved. But in the merging of two fields that have been unequal since their inception, achieving equal access is one tall order indeed. So far, it's not yet clear who or how many people will choose to participate. LunaDNA's platform has not yet launched; EncrypGen released their beta version just last month.
Sharon Terry, president and CEO of Genetic Alliance — a nonprofit organization that advocates for access to quality genetic services — recently shared a message that reflects the zeitgeist for all those entering the blockchain genomics space: "Be authentic. Tell the truth, even about motives and profits. Be transparent. Engage us. Don't leave us out. Make this real collaboration. Be bold. Take risks. People are dying. It's time to march forward and make a difference."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas Stan Smith Mylo shoe, made with an alternative leather grown from mycelium, to be released in 2022.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."
Amy Bitterman, who teaches at Rutgers Law School in Newark, gets enormous pleasure from her three mixed-breed rescue cats, Spike, Dee, and Lucy. To manage her chronically stuffy nose, three times a week she takes Allegra D, which combines the antihistamine fexofenadine with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Amy's dog allergy is rougher--so severe that when her sister launched a business, Pet Care By Susan, from their home in Edison, New Jersey, they knew Susan would have to move elsewhere before she could board dogs. Amy has tried to visit their brother, who owns a Labrador Retriever, taking Allegra D beforehand. But she began sneezing, and then developed watery eyes and phlegm in her chest.
"It gets harder and harder to breathe," she says.
Animal lovers have long dreamed of "hypo-allergenic" cats and dogs. Although to date, there is no such thing, biotechnology is beginning to provide solutions for cat-lovers. Cats are a simpler challenge than dogs. Dog allergies involve as many as seven proteins. But up to 95 percent of people who have cat allergies--estimated at 10 to 30 percent of the population in North America and Europe--react to one protein, Fel d1. Interestingly, cats don't seem to need Fel d1. There are cats who don't produce much Fel d1 and have no known health problems.
The current technologies fight Fel d1 in ingenious ways. Nestle Purina reached the market first with a cat food, Pro Plan LiveClear, launched in the U.S. a year and a half ago. It contains Fel d1 antibodies from eggs that in effect neutralize the protein. HypoCat, a vaccine for cats, induces them to create neutralizing antibodies to their own Fel d1. It may be available in the United States by 2024, says Gary Jennings, chief executive officer of Saiba Animal Health, a University of Zurich spin-off. Another approach, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to create a medication that would splice out Fel d1 genes in particular tissues, is the furthest from fruition.
"Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat."
Customer demand is high. "We already have a steady stream of allergic cat owners contacting us desperate to have access to the vaccine or participate in the testing program," Jennings said. "There is a major unmet medical need."
More than a third of Americans own a cat (while half own a dog), and pet ownership is rising. With more Americans living alone, pets may be just the right amount of company. But the number of Americans with asthma increases every year. Of that group, some 20 to 30 percent have pet allergies that could trigger a possibly deadly attack. It is not clear how many pets end up in shelters because their owners could no longer manage allergies. Instead, allergists commonly report that their patients won't give up a beloved companion.
No one can completely avoid Fel d1, which clings to clothing and lands everywhere cat-owners go, even in schools and new homes never occupied by cats. Myths among cat-lovers may lead them to underestimate their own level of risk. Short hair doesn't help: the length of cat hair doesn't affect the production of Fel d1. Bathing your cat will likely upset it and accomplish little. Washing cuts the amount on its skin and fur only for two days. In one study, researchers measured the Fel d1 in the ambient air in a small chamber occupied by a cat—and then washed the cat. Three hours later, with the cat in the chamber again, the measurable Fel d1 in the air was lower. But this benefit was gone after 24 hours.
For years, the best option has been shots for people that prompt protective antibodies. Bitterman received dog and cat allergy injections twice a week as a child. However, these treatments require up to 100 injections over three to five years, and, as in her case, the effect may be partial or wear off. Even if you do opt for shots, treating the cat also makes sense, since you could protect more than one allergic member of your household and any allergic visitors as well.
An Allergy-Neutralizing Diet
Cats produce much of their Fel d1 in their saliva, which then spreads it to their fur when they groom, observed Nestle Purina immunologist Ebenezer Satyaraj. He realized that this made saliva—and therefore a cat's mouth--an unusually effective site for change. Hens exposed to Fel d1 produce their own antibodies, which survive in their eggs. The team coated LiveClear food with a powder form of these eggs; once in a cat's mouth, the chicken antibody binds to the Fel d1 in the cat's saliva, neutralizing it.
The results are partial: In a study with 105 cats, the level of active Fel d1 in their fur had dropped on average by 47 percent after ten weeks eating LiveClear. Cats that produced more Fel d1 at baseline had a more robust response, with a drop of up to 71 percent. A safety study found no effects on cats after six months on the diet. "Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat," Satyaraj said. Might a dogfood that minimizes dog allergens be on the way? "There is some early work," he said.
This is a year when vaccines changed the lives of billions. Saiba's vaccine, HypoCat, delivers recombinant Fel d1 and the coat from a plant virus (the Cucumber mosaic virus) without any vital genetic information. The viral coat serves as a carrier. A cat would need shots once or twice a year to produce antibodies that neutralize Fel d1.
HypoCat works much like any vaccine, with the twist that the enemy is the cat's own protein. Is that safe? Saiba's team has followed 70 cats treated with the vaccine over two years and they remain healthy. Again the active Fel d1 doesn't disappear but diminishes. The team asked 10 people with cat allergies to report on their symptoms when they pet their vaccinated cats. Eight of them could pet their cat for nearly a half hour before their symptoms began, compared with an average of 17 minutes before the vaccine.
Jennings hopes to develop a HypoDog shot with a similar approach. However, the goal would be to target four or five proteins in one vaccine, and that increases the risk of hurting the dog. In the meantime, allergic dog-lovers considering an expensive breeder dog might think again: Independent research does not support the idea that any breed of dog produces less dander in the home. In fact, one well-designed study found that Spanish water dogs, Airedales, poodles and Labradoodles--breeds touted as hypo-allergenic--had significantly more of the most common allergen on their coat than an ordinary Lab and the control group.
One day you might be able to bring your cat to the vet once a year for an injection that would modify specific tissues so they wouldn't produce Fel d1.
Nicole Brackett, a postdoctoral scientist at Viriginia-based Indoor Biotechnologies, which specializes in manufacturing biologics for allergy and asthma, most recently has used CRISPR to identify Fel d1 genetic sequences in cells from 50 domestic cats and 24 exotic ones. She learned that the sequences vary substantially from one cat to the next. This discovery, she says, backs up the observations that Fel d1 doesn't have a vital purpose.
The next step will be a CRISPR knockout of the relevant genes in cells from feline salivary glands, a prime source of Fel d1. Although the company is considering using CRISPR to edit the genes in a cat embryo and possibly produce a Fel d1-free cat, designer cats won't be its ultimate product. Instead, the company aims to produce injections that could treat any cat.
Reducing pet allergens at home could have a compound benefit, Indoor Biotechnologies founder Martin Chapman, an immunologist, notes: "When you dampen down the response to one allergen, you could also dampen it down to multiple allergens." As allergies become more common around the world, that's especially good news.