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A conversation with Helix Chief Product Officer Chris Glode

Helix is in search for partners to build on its next-gen DNA platform

Entrepreneur interview by Bambi Francisco Roizen
September 20, 2018
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/4c2a

Dr. Archana Dubey, Global Medical Director at HP, and Fran Ayalasomayajula, who heads up Population Health at HP, and I are hosting our next Invent Health salon series on the evening of September 27, down at HP headquarters in Palo Alto. The focus: Precision Health

Chris Glode, named Chief Product Officer of Helix, in June, defines precision health as a way to use "new technologies to help individuals manage their health proactively.  Moving away from a model where we discover health issues after they've already arisen, and treat them in a "one-size-fits-all" manner - it's about preventing them from occurring in the first place and treating them based on the unique biology and conditions of the patient."

Helix, which runs a next-gen DNA sequencing platform and marketplace for DNA tests, acquired HumanCode, which was co-founded by Chris. 

Chris will be joining us as one of our speakers, along with some other digital health influencers, such as Atul Butte, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg Distinguished Professor at UCSF, Hiliary Critchley of Manifex MedEx, founded by Claudia Williams, who helped lead President Obama's Precision Medicine Initiative, as well as investors and executives from GE Ventures, Kaiser, Virta Health, Bigfoot Biodmedical and many more. The event is highly curated, but we do make room for those new to the community. JOIN US

Ahead of the salon, Chris took some time to share what's happening at Helix, including the company's search to broaden out its direct-to-consumer DNA tests.  

BF: Why genotyping vs sequencing?

CG: We’re part of the next-gen sequencing (NGS) revolution. Using a book analogy, genotyping is like looking at a few scattered words on a page, whereas sequencing is like reading entire sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Most products for DNA test kits are based on genotyping, because it’s an older technology and sequencing used to be too expensive. But there’s been a massive drop in costs from 10-15 yrs ago when sequencing a human genome was $100 million. Today, people can be sequenced by Helix for just $40, and many of the products that interpret their DNA insights are less than $100. The magic of Helix is that because we use NGS , the DNA we sequence and store for our customers includes 100x more data than most consumer DNA tests, and our customers can access a wide range of future products without submitting another saliva sample.

BF: Helix can offer DNA tests for a lot lower cost than other companies because the tests (which are made by other companies) are leveraging your NGS technology, right?

CG: With Helix, we can make it cost-effective so that partner  companies can develop applications which utilize our lab, and reach a consumer base through our marketplace. Our lab sequences DNA for consumers at the highest throughput and lowest cost basis. With Helix, you would only have to incur the cost of being sequenced once. As a wider range of DNA products become more popular, people will be accessing more of them on Helix. We have more than 35 DNA products today, in a range of categories, including ancestry, health, wellness and even some that are just for fun. We’re launching five more by end of this year, including health tests from some of the biggest brands in the health space.

BF: HumanCode started on the Helix marketplace. And Helix acquired your company this summer. Congrats. Why did you decide to be part of the larger organization? Do you expect Helix to buy other apps and to be considered, what would the qualifications for a company have to be?

CG: HumanCode and Helix had a lot of alignment in our missions: we both strive to help people improve their lives through understanding their DNA. HumanCode was focused on the application side and Helix on the platform and marketplace side. As we worked together we realized we could both accelerate our mission by joining forces, which led to the acquisition. Helix does not have anything to share regarding other acquisitions.

BF: Genomic pioneer Craig Venter said that the definition of what it means to be healthy will change due to the new information about our predispositions. How is this affecting the insurance industry today and how will it affect them tomorrow?

CG: There’s definitely strong and widely-regarded legislation that precludes health insurance companies from discriminating against you by using your DNA. It’s called Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act, or “GINA”. To paraphrase what Craig said, as the cost comes down, and research gets better, there’s more value and less cost for all participants. In the future, there’ll be more reason for healthy people to get these tests done. Now as we start to get more research, we can give people more information. We can score a health person’s propensity to get a disease, and depending on the research out there, perhaps help them take action to reduce that risk. I have Gout, and it runs in my family. I developed symptoms. I saw a polygenic risks score for Gout and I checked myself and realized that I do carry many of the high impact genetic markers for the disease. For my kids, they’ll be able to do this and they’ll get a panel and accurate read for their propensity for these dispositions.

BF: What is the penetration rate of people who have gotten their DNA tested?

CG: It’s a little tough to say, because on the medical side, people who have had a DNA test from their doctor, might not think of themselves as having “been sequenced” in the same way as someone who bought a consumer DNA product. I’ve read estimates that between 20-30 million people have paid out of pocket for direct to consumer DNA tests in the USA, by the end of this year - and the number is skyrocketing.

On the research side, there are large scale programs like the federally funded “All of Us Research Program”, which seeks to collect DNA samples from up to one million people, and we have similar programs in place with organizations like Renown Institute of Health Innovation and the “Healthy Nevada” program, for which Helix is the sequencing partner.

The other exciting thing that’s happening is CRISPR, which allows scientists to change DNAAs editing gets better, it clearly becomes impactful because down the road (and it’s still a ways off) we can potentially harness this new technology to help fight diseases. Parents today, compared to five to 10 yrs ago, can get saliva samples and understand their predispositions and they can make more informed decisions in planning their families. It’s possible to imagine that through better understanding how diseases are inherited, through DNA sequencing, and potentially together with editing, this technology could put an end to many heritable diseases.

BF: There’s a lot of criticism around the genetic tests. One critique is that we all have genetic variants and are at risk for many conditions. And the regimen for someone predisposed or not is just good healthy living. If someone already knew that high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease ran in the family, what other information would a DNA test tell them to compel them to change? Or what kind of regimen would be offered up that isn’t already offered up by physicians today for someone with that family history?

CG: For many people, family history can be tough to determine, and is often unreliable. DNA sequencing reflects a “ground truth” that is hard to discern from self-reported oral family history.  In addition, parents or grandparents may pass along genetic markers that could have impact us, even if it didn’t impact them.  This is one reason it’s useful. The science is also progressing quickly and we are in the early stages of understanding what kind of interventions lead to better health outcomes based on the results of DNA testing. For some folks, DNA could simply be an effective motivator to make better lifestyle choices. For others, there will increasingly be specific next steps they can take to improve their outcomes. For health products, we partner with genetic counselors who can help our customers best understand their results and determine what next steps make sense.

BF: Another critique is for some of these DNA tests such as Soccergenomics, which has received a lot of ridicule (though it’s unclear whether that ridicule is valid), since it says it can help you understand how to put together the best soccer plan for your child so they can be the best they can be. Helix is looking for partners, possibly like this. What is the test you make potential partners go through to make sure they’re legitimate?

CG: Any product on the Helix marketplace goes through our scientific evidence evaluation process.  We look at the research and evidence which underpins any claim, genetic risk score, or result being delivered to the Helix customers via the partner product.  We’ve worked with partners to enhance their products as they build them on Helix, to make sure we’re being diligent about the science behind the insights offered, as well as the role of genetics vs lifestyle factors and behaviors.  That being said, we also think there’s room for fun products in DNA that don’t necessarily involve scientific claims - like the socks and scarves from DotOne, which make a totally unique pattern for you based on your unique genetics. In the end, we want people to learn from their DNA, in whatever way they feel ready to, whether that’s through fun products like a scarf, or through health products that tell you about your risk for Alzheimers. And so that means being transparent with the customer about the impact of their genes, that DNA is not destiny, and that there is support where appropriate.

BF: What’s the growth opportunity for the company?

CG: We see an explosion in the consumer genomics category as a whole. We’re experiencing that growth. We don’t see that stopping. As the costs continue to come down, and the research yields more new insights, the potential for products on Helix increases every day. It’s easy to think of a penetration curve similar to smartphones, where today we are in the early days - but eventually most people will have access to their DNA. This is something most people will take advantage of.  We’re looking to partner with any company or group who has a new genetic insight or product that they want to offer directly to consumers.

BF: What kind of partnerships would excite you? You’re focused on recruiting partners and expanding the breadth of applications. What areas look promising?

CG: Our four core categories are Health, Ancestry, Entertainment, and Wellness.  Within each of them, there’s potential for such a rich range of experiences. On the health side, we’re helping companies who specialize in research and/or clinical DNA tests to make them available directly to customers.  We have a team with deep expertise in designing, building, and marketing consumer products that can help them with this transition. We have a number of great applications from partners in the Ancestry category today, and we think that this area holds tremendous potential as well for future partners - it’s certainly where many consumers are beginning their DNA journey today.  The Entertainment vertical already has some really interesting products on Helix and we see that growing rapidly, especially since the objective can be more fun and education and less serious. Within Wellness, we have partners that have incredible phenotypic data sets around fitness, weight loss, athletic performance, and nutrition that have the potential to make new discoveries and incorporate them into new products that can help people live a better life. The possibilities are nearly endless when you look at the sum of all the categories.

BF: Thanks, Chris! 

(Image source: bizjournals)


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