Harvard University geneticist George Church has co-founded a new company to help individuals share and market their genomes.

GRETCHEN ERTL/The New York Times

Q&A: George Church and company on genomic sequencing, blockchain, and better drugs

In Hollywood terms, a marriage of blockchain, the technology created to track the bitcoin digital currency, and whole genome sequencing is a supercouple. And when the best man at the wedding is Harvard University geneticist George Church—whose innovations, his website notes, “have contributed to nearly all ‘next generation’ DNA sequencing methods and companies”—we’re talking TMZ-level celebrity splash. Meet Nebula Genomics, a new company that Church announced yesterday in a “white paper” that spells out how this Brangelina can lead to a better understanding of the causes of diseases, improve drug development, and, ultimately, tap into “a genomic data market worth billions of dollars.”

Other companies offer genome testing directly to consumers. Ancestry, 23andMe, and Helix sequence scan parts of the genome. A recent newcomer called Luna DNA combines the database features of blockchain with whole genome sequencing and compensates participants with cryptocurrency called Luna Coins. But Nebula says it alone will offer consumers private storage of personal data, secure computing, payment for their data, and a way to subsidize the cost of sequencing. “Data buyers”—read: drug and biotech companies—will be able to directly contact owners and quickly access large data sets. Nebula has a mere $600,000 in seed money, but it also has Boston-based Veritas Genetics, one of many biotechs Church has co-founded, as a partner.

ScienceInsider discussed the new venture with Church, founder of the nonprofit Personal Genome Project (PGP), which since 2005 has gathered publicly shared genomic and health data from around 10,000 volunteers. Because some of the questions stumped him, he asked two of his co-founders, Dennis Grishin and Kamal Obbad, to provide input. Grishin is a grad student in Church’s lab who specializes in sequencing technologies and bioinformatics, and Obbad, the blockchain brain, graduated from Harvard in 2016 and worked at Google for a spell. Their answers were edited and condensed.

Q: Why are you doing this?

George Church: I’ve been trying every possible model to bring something forward that I think is overdue—everybody getting their genome—and it seems like some of the barriers have been cost and some have to do with perceived or actual security and ways of connecting the information to get higher value. We eventually hit on what we think is a good solution. Everybody owns their data but they can get paid for it by people who want to use the data. Rather than a direct-to-consumer company selling it to whomever they want, you own it in every way. You can share it in a way that’s secure and you can control how much they get. That’s where the blockchain comes in.

Q: How does Nebula relate to the PGP?

G.C.: That’s almost the other end of the spectrum. PGP is growing—it’s solidly in five countries—but it’s not in any danger of impacting 7 billion people. Maybe Nebula isn’t either, but it is scalable.

This new model will allow you to do it for everybody, even people who don’t want to share their data full monty with the world. Nebula never actually owns the whole big data hairball. The person owns their data.

The other problem with the PGP is there’s no real compensation—not only for the people but the project. It’s like Wikipedia. Nebula is much more like a marketplace. People know what their genome is worth and they get money for it.

So PGP and Nebula are complimentary solutions to the problem.

Q: How does this differ from Luna DNA?

G.C.: There are a few groups that are mentioning blockchain in one way or another. Some of them are potential customers—we’ve had conversations with them. Others are more in medicine without dealing with genomics. The ones in genomics are not experts in blockchain and those in blockchain are not experts in genomics. We have a dream team. We have Veritas involved—they had the first $1000 genome in United States—and they have a lot of experience providing counseling.

Dennis Grishin: We see each other more as prospective collaborators than competitors, and our models can potentially benefit each other.

Q: Is Nebula offering to provide free, whole-genome sequencing?

G.C.: Not directly. Say two companies are interested in my genome. They could each pay $500 and get access to what they need. And if companies want to pay for your particular genome, you can get your information for free and still get some of the benefits like genetic counseling. It’s a matter of matching people up. It’s like Uber and Airbnb.

Q: Why would a pharmaceutical company care about a specific individual’s genome?

G.C.: Say there’s a database where they can ask, “Do you have anyone 45 years old who lives downstream from certain factories who either wants to serve as a control or a case in a study?” If you happen to fit that bill, they’ll say, “We’ll pay for this.”

Q: A lot of people don’t understand blockchain. Can you explain it simply?

G.C.: I have to get back to you on it. I have a lot of specialties but that’s not one of them.

Q: Kamal and Dennis?

Kamal Obbad: Think of it as a decentralized, verifiable database where people can own their genetic data, control who accesses their data, and see who is accessing data. The blockchain is trustless. You don’t trust anyone to change the data, tamper with the data, or control the data. Nebula can’t take your data and sell it and yet blockchain allows us to offer a large-scale genomics database.

D.G.: Today we typically do financial interactions through banks, and instruments you trust store all the records and transfers from one bank to another. Blockchain removes the central authority, decentralizing everything, and lets any participant in the network store a copy of all transaction records. You will store your data wherever you want—locally on your computer or Dropbox or whatever cloud storage you use—in encrypted form. Through certain algorithms, users in the network can confirm they have the right transaction reports, and it’s almost impossible to hack.

(For a more detailed description of blockchain, read this.)

Q: Nebula has tokens. How do those work?

G.C.: Got me.

D.G.: Pharma companies will purchase tokens directly from us. Individuals can earn tokens by giving pharma and biotechs and academics access to their data. People can either buy personal sequencing through Veritas or they can join our network and [as Church explained] companies might decide to pay for their sequencing costs.

Q: Do you own cryptocurrencies?

G.C.: No, no.

K.O.: I’ve invested in a bunch of them. Sometimes you wake up and half of your money is gone.

Q: How do I convert tokens into cash? What can I do with them?

K.O.: Currently you can convert the tokens to bitcoins, ether, or other cryptocurrencies and you can convert those to U.S. dollars with Coinbase. A lot of companies like ours that are developing tokens are making a long-term bet that cryptocurrencies are the future and you can make transactions in them.