“Currently, there’s this huge gap in genetic information,” says Abasi Ene-Obong, who studied cancer biology at the University of London before founding 54gene in January. After completing stints at Y Combinator and Google Launchpad Africa, the company secured $4.5 million in seed funding this summer to start filling that gap, the biggest seed round ever for a Nigerian health tech startup. Ene-Obong says they’re on track to collect 40,000 samples by the end of this year, and 200,000 samples by the end of 2020. If it reaches that number, 54gene would be competitive with some of the biggest biobanks in the world. “We want to make African genomics available to the world to power drug discoveries that can treat people of all races,” Ene-Obong says.
In new work they presented at last week’s Network & Distributed System Security Symposium, a team of researchers from UC Irvine and UC Riverside unveiled a so-called acoustic side-channel attack on a popular DNA-making machine, a vulnerability they say could imperil the up-and-coming synthetic biology and DNA-based data storage industries.
To get its DNA samples, 54gene is working with 17 hospitals across Nigeria, targeting patients with cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic conditions, neurodegenerative disorders, and sickle cell disease. The company piggybacks onto ongoing studies at those institutions, working with research assistants to recruit volunteers, obtain their consent, and collect samples—blood, tumor tissue, saliva. When 54gene starts processing its samples next year, researchers at those hospitals will get to see their patients’ genetic data, and in turn, 54gene will get access to those individuals’ health records.
The strategy is a bit of a pivot from 54gene’s initial plans to stockpile DNA by going straight to consumers. The company briefly dabbled in selling spit kits that delivered insights into health and ancestry, like the ones made by 23andMe. But after just a few months, 54gene dropped the test. Launching a consumer health product in Africa—where e-commerce is limited and customers are hard to reach—can be exceedingly difficult. But Ene-Obong says it wasn’t just distribution challenges that forced the change. “We decided ultimately that we didn’t want to use consumer DNA tests as a Trojan horse to get people’s data,” he says.
Instead, the company is being transparent about banking on the pharmaceutical industry’s willingness to shell out big sums for its information. Earlier this month, four of the world’s largest drug companies agreed to pay around $120 million for access to new data from the UK Biobank, one of the DNA databases from which 54gene draws inspiration, and which also links to electronic health records. Seth Bannon, a founding partner at the San Francisco–based venture fund Fifty Years, which invested in 54gene, lauds the shift to hospital partnerships. “54gene has found the ability to collect quality samples way faster than we thought possible.”
So two years ago, in a Hail Mary attempt to defend against potential bioengineered viruses, Evans and his research associate did something unthinkable: They revived an extinct cousin of smallpox called horsepox, using mail-order DNA.The Frankensteinian act stirred outrage among the international scientific community, which cast Evans as the Walter White of synthetic biology .
The company’s growing collection could potentially prove even more valuable than existing biobanks. Because humans have lived there longer than anywhere else, African populations are known to harbor the greatest genetic diversity in the world. Nigeria alone boasts 500 unique ethnic groups whose genetics have been conserved over millennia.
Megan Molteni covers biotechnology, medicine, and genetic privacy for WIRED.DHS officials say the pilot is just a small-scale evaluation to see if the technology can help root out cases of criminal fraud, including human trafficking and “child recycling.” Last month, former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a congressional committee that the agency had discovered multiple incidences of young people being passed around, or “recycled,” to help migrants gain illegal entry.