Nebula wants to democratise genome sequencing, with the help of blockchain and cryptocurrency

Andrew McConaghie

A new start-up has been launched with a dazzling, technology-enabled vision of putting genomics into the hands of the DNA’s owners – individuals – rather than what it calls genomics ‘middle men’.

Nebula Genomics is the brainchild of Harvard and MIT professor George Church and colleagues, who last week said their company could help drive down the cost of genome sequencing to $100 in just a few years.

The company will work with Veritas Genetics, founded and managed by members of the Nebula Genetics team, which it says was the first to sequence a genome for less than $1,000 last year.
Even more eye-catching is the start-up’s plans for delivery: it aims to pay individuals to have their genome sequenced, and pay them with its own cryptocurrency, Nebula tokens.  The company will then use blockchain to securely encrypt the data, and allow individuals complete control over what happens to their genomic data – with the hope that most will then sell on this data to commercial research teams.

The Nebula team believes this could be a revolutionary approach to genomics, cutting out the current consumer-focused genomics ‘middlemen’ – 23andMe, Helix and
23andMe currently charges US consumers $159 for a genome sequencing service which covers genetic health risks and insights on ancestry, but Nebula wants to turn this model on its head by paying individuals for their data.

George Church and colleagues set out their extraordinary vision in a white paper last week:

“The Nebula model… eliminates personal genomics companies as middlemen between data owners and data buyers. Instead, data owners can acquire their personal genomic data from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers.”

This model reduces effective sequencing costs and enhances protection of personal genomic data. It also satisfies the needs of data buyers regarding data availability, data​ ​acquisition​ ​logistics​ ​and​ ​resources​ ​needed​ ​for​ ​genomic​ ​big​ ​data.

Nebula isn’t the only company which is aiming to use blockchain in handling genomic data – San Diego-based Luna DNA is also exploring how to bring these technologies together.

Nebula says it will launch an initial coin offering in the near future to launch the business, but already has a $600,000 investment from an angel investor to prepare the groundwork.

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