As part of Y Combinator’s push into computational biology and bioinformatics, the early-stage firm is backing a team that used to work on the Human Genome Project and is now experimenting with RNA testing through a startup called Cofactor Genomics.
They argue RNA, which is the intermediate step between a person’s DNA and the proteins their bodies make, is a much more accurate and real-time way of diagnosing disease. DNA, on the other hand, is predictive. It can tell you your risks of contracting a disease later in life. But for many conditions, it can’t definitively tell you if you have them at the moment.
RNA also dynamically changes over time in response to what you eat and what kind of environment you’re living in.
“We believe that RNA is a better barometer of health. It changes dynamically and we think it’s a much more accurate and much earlier way to diagnose disease,” said Jarret Glasscock, the company’s CEO. “DNA is pre-symptomatic. But with RNA, we think we’ll be able to see a molecular signature sooner.”
Since being founded six years ago, the St. Louis, Missouri-based company has signed contracts with nine of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies. They couldn’t disclose who, however. They also have about $1.5 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health.
They expect to work in diagnostics for cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s first, and their tests use blood samples. They don’t have an expected price range for their tests, but they hope to start making diagnostics available next year.
Even though they’ve been around for six years, co-founders Glasscock, Dave Messina and Jon Armstrong felt that a connection to the Valley through Y Combinator would help their business, which is in the Midwest.
“They don’t necessarily have the domain knowledge, but they make these connections in the Valley that for us are extremely important,” Glasscock said.
While Cofactor focuses on RNA, there is a whole wave of DNA diagnostic companies that have been funded in Silicon Valley in recent years, including Color Genomics, which tests for breast cancer risk genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, and Counsyl, which does carrier screening to test whether parents might pass on single gene recessive disorders to their future children.