Written by Impact HUB Tokyo Editor: Laure-Hélène Boudier
In 2013, Angelina Jolie made the very mediatized decision to undergo a double mastectomy. She had been found to carry a mutation of the BRCA1 gene that, coupled with her family history, put her at 87% risk of contracting breast cancer.
In 2016, Momondo’s ad “The DNA journey” quickly went viral. In this video, the Danish global travel agency had gathered sixteen strangers of diverse ethnicity and investigated their ancestors’ origins. Participants were shocked when confronted to their DNA test results. It turned out they were much closer to each other than they had thought.
In 2016, the Botswanan government radically changed its strategy against HIV. It decided to forego the use of a three-in-one drug containing a molecule called “efavirenz” and to instead begin using a newer yet more expensive drug, dolutegravir. The policy change stemmed from the finding that a significant portion of Botswana’s population bears copies of a gene variant that slows the body’s ability to break down efavirenz. This slower process leads to a build-up of the molecule in patients’ bloodstream, which can cause hallucinations and suicidal tendencies.
What do all these seemingly unrelated stories have in common? They are examples of how a better understanding of genomics may impact personal health decisions, our conception of humankind, or government policy. And one cannot help but wonder, is it a taste of things to come?
This is what Yuta Matsuda, Tomohiro Takano and Kensuke Numakura, the co-founders of Awakens, believe. Intrigued by the undertakings of this start-up at the forefront of genomics research, we decided to investigate.
Impact HUB Tokyo: There’re sporadic appearances in the news of articles related to genomics. They may not be the most sensational stories, yet one can’t help but feel that something is coming…
Awakens: And that would be right on track. There is a silent, inconspicuous revolution underway in the field of genomics research. We are basically entering a phase similar to what the 90s were for the Internet industry. What brought about this transformation is the drastic decrease in the cost of DNA sequencing. Fifteen years ago, you needed to spend $3 billion to have your DNA sequenced. Nowadays, it has dwindled to $1,000-2,000, thanks to advances in hardware technology. I know this may still sound prohibitive, but keep in mind that this is the price of sequencing your whole DNA. If you’re only interested in uncovering one gene, the cost averages $100-200 now. And, in any case, we predict that the cost of sequencing an individual’s entire DNA will eventually fall below $100 by 2020.
Impact HUB Tokyo: I am racking my brains to remember my middle school’s biology classes… Before we delve into Awakens, could you refresh my memory?
Awakens: Sure! The basics are: the human genome contains 22 pairs of chromosomes plus the X-X or X-Y combination in females and males respectively. So if we say that each one of us carries with them their very own library, each chromosome would represent a book. These books are written in a language whose alphabet contains four letters, the four amino acids A-T-G-C. The human genome contains approximately 20,000 protein-coding genes, or 3 billion letters. So that’s the task at hand when you think of sequencing someone’s DNA. You need to read each letter, one after another, and you know that when you come across a specific sequence (ATG) a new gene starts, until you encounter the sequence TAA or TAG or TGA that signifies the gene has ended.
Impact HUB Tokyo: And so, the ability to read this sequence of information… What does it imply for our lives?
Awakens: Well, we all carry 20,000 genes, yes, but each of us is a unique combination of specific mutations of these 20,000 genes. And so, once we’ve identified the function of a gene in the body, we can correlate specific variants of the gene with specific outcomes. This leads us to understand the innate tendencies that people carry. It might be how and where they stock fat, or how likely they are to develop certain diseases, or how they body can break down certain molecules. Truth is, we are still in the dark as to what each gene computes, but the rate of discoveries is exponential. This is why, for instance, the Angelina Jolie story we mentioned earlier was so controversial. It’s not that one particular mutation of a gene means you’ll get cancer for sure. The chain of causality is much longer and intricate than that. One gene explains how a small part of your body operates, how to build a certain protein. Then, determining the link between this protein and the whole machine, and even the contraction of a disease… That is extremely difficult to do. That’s why the knowledge we have today comes mainly from observing correlations, and can be open to debate. Lastly, environment plays a fundamental role in determining one’s life trajectory. But what is certain is that, with the cost of DNA sequencing dwindling, the global DNA database is about to grow drastically, and with it our knowledge of the human genome. We are only beginning to explore the depths of human nature. And it’s fascinating!
Impact HUB Tokyo: And with this knowledge, the business opportunities that come with it. How did Awakens start?
Awakens: We both worked in the field of genomics before. Tomo worked for a company called M3, Inc. and its corporate venture G-TAC, which is building the largest physicians network for genomics and personalized medicine. Yuta was the founding team member of a service call MyCode, which is the most popular genetic testing service in Japan and worked as a science manager for the service. Although we’d never have met, be it for Yuta’s wife! She’s a former classmate of Tomo’s and so she introduced us—it was pretty obvious we’d get along, because we’re both quite passionate about all this genomics stuff! And we did get along, and began meeting at the Hub on weekends to work on a side project: soon enough, the side project became a start-up that we called “Awakens.”
Impact HUB Tokyo: What is Awakens?
Awakens: Our vision is “Digitalize a Life, and Connect to the Better Life.” And our service concept is a genomic service platform where, 1. Anyone can have the ownership of their own whole genome data and access to reliable knowledge and services, and 2. Anyone can create authentic genomic service applications only with coding. First, we will enable users to have the ownership and full-control rights of their genome data and then to learn what their genome contains through our consumer platform called “Genomic Explorer.” Even though there is a growing movement of genetic testing services, the majority of people do not understand how genome data looks like and what is actually analyzed. It is like a black box. So, we make the most intuitive, user-friendly and informative tools for users to access what they can know from their genome. The platform will be free to access and view, and when users want to have their own genome data, they can make a purchase through our website.
Also, for service developers, we are creating a SaaS type product called “Genome Link.” This is like a Twilio/Stripe for Genomic Service development. From digital healthcare, medicine, FinTech, Ed-tech, media or even arts and entertainment, there are infinite possibilities for the application of genomic data. But developing a database and operations to create a new genomic service is extremely costly for companies. So, we provide an API software service, whereby even developers without a bioinformatics and genomics background can create a genomic service application: they only need to code.
Impact HUB Tokyo: All advice based on my DNA data will be accessible through the “genome explorer”?
Awakens: Yes and no. Once you’ve sequenced your DNA, this information is of course proprietary and you have the ownership to access it through our portal. But getting specific advice related to health, diet or fitness typically requires more information, on habits, environment etc. This is why we are also developing “Genome Link”, our API software connected with partners’ service applications, whereby our genome explorer can be integrated into a third-party app or website as to allow them to improve their services to you. It’s an add-on for developers, in sum. Also, for medical applications, we will be working with proper physicians in the process, too.
Working on this API base B2B endeavor has led us to develop a third dimension for Awakens’ vision, related to ethics—we can’t skip this step whenever new technology sees the day of light! We’ve taken this extremely seriously, and have organized a series of events to educate and discuss the ethics of genomics’ applications. Our last event was held in Stanford University in March 2017 and focused on the relationship between education and genomics.
Impact HUB Tokyo: Have you taken in investors? And if so, any word of advice on that?
Awakens: We have indeed received angel funding. It kind of developed naturally, through our network, since we were already working in the field and had a strong passion for the future of the technology. I think our passion and commitment to the project was quite obvious to the prospective investors we happened to meet. But I guess what made investors click really was the strength of our team. Yes, passion is part of that, but it also has to do with how complementary the team’s skills are and how well the team is able to communicate and get things done. So our piece of advice would be simply that the best way to convince investors of your worthwhileness, is to show a track-record of collaboration and achievements.
Impact HUB Tokyo: Spoken with wisdom! Where can we follow you?
Awakens: You can stay tune to our website for the release of our genome explorer sample!