The quantified health movement is really just getting going, with basic stuff like fitness tracker bands. The potential for helping curious people measure, track, analyse and diagnose aspects of their personal health in the context of their lifestyle choices — potentially in highly granular detail — is almost limitless. It’s also a huge moneymaking opportunity.
Step forward new U.S. startup Exogen Bio, which wants to help quantified health-ers monitor and track their personal rate of DNA damage.
Now, DNA damage sounds horrific but is actually something that happens all the time to everyone’s DNA — think of it as natural biological entropy — albeit, rates vary, from person to person, and can be affected by lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, exposure to environmental toxins and so on.
Hence the (apparent) value in tracking your personal rate of DNA damage — i.e. if you’re able to contextualise it against others of a similar age, location etc. And, more so, if there’s potential to identify particular lifestyle behaviors that are causing accelerated damage, over and above the average (i.e. above the inevitable DNA damage caused by, y’know, being alive and getting older), and therefore tweak your lifestyle to lessen the DNA damage you suffer.
That is the basic call to arms of Exogen Bio. Quantify your DNA damage against others like you, and potentially identify factors that might be accelerating damage.
What’s the tech angle here? The startup has developed computational tools for quickly quantifying DNA damage of many samples at once vs the individual sample manual counting approach that many research laboratories take — which it argues is time-consuming, subjective and labour-intensive.
Exogen Bio has also come up with a technique that does not require large amounts of blood and immediate processing — thereby enabling its remote crowdsourced sample collection via mailed blood collection kits to customers that are then shipped back to its lab for analysis.
“The concept of crowdsourcing data for science is starting to become more popular,” says Exogen Bio co-founder Jon Tang. “With the current decline of funding for science, researchers are starting to look for alternative resources to allow them to do their science.”
It’s dubbing its startup a “citizen science project”, being as the data it needs to get a business off the ground is that generated by analysing fresh blood samples — which have to be provided by willing donors. Aka you guys: the ‘citizen scientists’. To be clear: these are fresh blood samples — taken at home via a sterile lancet then mixed with a fixative solution (included in the collection kit) and mailed back to Exogen’s lab for analysis.
This crowdsourced approach to harvesting scientific data is how Exogen hopes to build up a valuable, monetizable DNA damage database — perhaps, in time, allowing it to being able to identify geographical hotspots for DNA damage. Or spot other patterns and trends, such as correlating specific diseases associated with high rates of DNA damage.
“Once we have identified specific diseases that are associated with high levels of DNA damage from our campaign, we hope to be able to engage in a clinical trial and get FDA approval for our technology to be used as a diagnostic test for those diseases,” adds Tang. “Our goal is to eventually make our test as common as a cholesterol test and have primary care physicians prescribe our assay for their patients.
“We are also looking at using our technology in hospitals to monitor the dose of ionizing radiation that a person receives during medical imaging, such as a CT scan or an x-ray, as a safeguard against human error. This particular application is our specialty at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.”
What do the citizen scientists/customers of Exogen Bio get in exchange for giving blood? The public is being asked to send the samples in in exchange for analysis (quantification) of their rate of DNA damage. But they have to pay for this service, even though they are providing the startup with the blood its business needs (both literally and figuratively) to function. So the data value exchange goes (you are of course paying for use of the lab equipment and specialist staff to analyse your samples, and the digital interface where you can parse the quantified data).
The cost of sending in your blood samples to Exogen Bio in exchange for a secure log in to view quantified data on your DNA damage is $99 for one kit (i.e. to submit three blood samples, taken on three consecutive days), or $124 outside the U.S. This single kit only gives a baseline reading of your DNA damage rate but does not enable any comparative analysis of how, for instance, a new diet or exercise regime might have affected that rate.
If you want to conduct that sort of comparative experiment the cost is $179 (or $204 outside the U.S.) for two kits, allowing you to collect blood before and after running a marathon, say, or before and after starting your new carb backloading diet, for instance.
There are also family packs, if you want to quantify the DNA damage of your entire brood and are willing to shell out several hundred dollars to do so.
Exogen Bio is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, and has passed its original funding goal of $50,000 with 22 days left to run on the campaign — so it’s evidently struck a chord with some health concerned folk.
At the time of writing it has raised more than $63,700 from more than 370 backers. And says it’s actively looking for a seed funding round, now that it’s Indiegogo campaign has “shown some traction”.
But isn’t the value exchange here a bit skewed? In terms of what the blood donors are getting in exchange for their samples and payment, vs the valuable medical data the startup potentially amasses (Exogen’s Indiegogo campaign notes that it “will use [blood donors'] data in a non-identifiable way for research in the future, which may be of a commercial nature”)?
There are also many factors that could be affecting rates of DNA damage so the other risk from the user point of view is to be provided with partial analysis that leads to inaccurate conclusions about the healthiness of certain aspects of their lifestyle.
“We agree that the data we initially provide may not be as complete as there is little to compare to,” Tang tells TechCrunch, referring to individuals who order the basic kit early on. “However, we have data from over 100 individuals now, and this database is continually growing. As the database grows, users will be updated about how our new findings relate to their results.”
“If you take the example of a cholesterol test, the absolute value you get is important because there is scientific evidence to support the relation between cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. We hope that this will eventually be the same with our test, but with other diseases,” he adds.
“However in our case, the meaning behind the values of our DNA damage test needs to first be defined. This is one of the main reasons why we chose to do a citizen science study. We need to collect data to determine what is considered low, normal, and high and how those values relate to specific diseases, and environmental and lifestyle factors.
“And even with cholesterol, there is much more information gained from taking repeated measurements over time. By tracking lifestyle changes and measuring cholesterol levels over time, you can optimize your cholesterol levels in order to reduce your risk for cardiovascular diseases. We hope our test will be very similar where tracking your lifestyle will bring out the best of this new metric.
“Our goal is to eventually provide a means for individuals to ‘track and hack’ their DNA health to reduce their risk for many aging-related diseases.”
Tang also stresses that Exogen is not making any “immediate promises” to donors about the actionable data that might result from participating in its “citizen science study” — in terms of helping them identify particular risk factors in their lifestyle.
“There are many factors that affect DNA damage,” he concedes. “The idea is to test individual factors independently, and our results will depend highly on the accuracy of data entry from our users. We are working with our talented Scientific Advisory Board to ensure that we are gathering sufficient data from our participants to gain useful information from this study.
“We are also gathering additional samples and data from other studies outside of our Indiegogo citizen science campaign. Having a large dataset will help to overcome any noise we expect.”
The startup ran a few pilot studies within the Bay area last year, gathering data from more than 100 individuals — giving it a small data pool to build out from.
“With this small group, we have already been able to show that certain factors are strongly associated with DNA damage. For example, we saw that DNA damage is highly dependent on age, which is in agreement with our hypothesis (and that of many other scientists) that DNA damage may contribute to aging and aging-related diseases,” he adds.
“Additionally, four individuals had suffered from cancer, and they had the highest levels of DNA damage within their age group. These exciting preliminary results make the point that this technology is sensitive enough to pick up factors associated with DNA damage.”