The Helix Model: Why We’re Building an Open Platform for DNA
“A sentence carries more meaning than any of the individual words. And so it is with genes. An organism is much more than its genes, of course, but to understand an organism, you must first understand its genes. […] ‘Alchemy could not become chemistry until its fundamental units were discovered,’ a nineteenth-century scientist wrote. By the same token […] it is impossible to understand organismal and cellular biology or evolution — or human pathology, behavior, temperament, illness, race, and identity or fate — without first reckoning with the concept of the gene.” — Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History
Nothing is more personal than your DNA. Since the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, the promise of genomics has been tantalizing. Thirteen years later, genomics is at a tipping point. In the next year, more people will have their DNA sequenced than in all of human history up to this point. In the next twenty years, the majority of the world’s population will have the opportunity to participate in this revolution. The unique combination of rapidly falling sequencing costs, exponentially increasing scientific knowledge, and widely available cloud computing and data storage is transforming how we interact with our own biology in a deeply profound way.
We shouldn’t take for granted, however, that everyone will directly benefit from the power of their own DNA. Even if genomics moves out of research labs and into the hands of millions of people, the underlying information has to be transformed into products and services that are useful and accessible. Many blood tests, for example, have been widely available for decades, yet few people (if any) use the data to make meaningful life changes. People fundamentally do not want technical reports with a long list of scientific references, yet this is still how DNA information is delivered today. How can we do better?
At Helix, our mission is to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. We believe in providing an open platform where high-quality, trusted partners deliver consumer-friendly products that can be used every day by millions of people.
This shift to a partner-driven platform is critical to moving DNA away from the current world of one-time reports. We believe that an open platform brings the most benefit to individuals because:
1. Users can access the highest-quality products
A partner-driven model enables every company to deliver products that leverage their unique strengths. For example, National Geographic has over a century of experience helping people learn about science and exploration, with a particular focus on human history. It’s therefore no surprise they were the first organization to help people understand their ancestry through DNA when they pioneered the Genographic Project in 2005. With a continued focus on drawing on the most advanced science and technology, National Geographic has also launched the first ancestry product on the Helix platform.
But if you were looking to understand your risk for a health condition, you might go to Mayo Clinic instead, with its expertise in providing some of the most advanced healthcare in the world. Similarly, companies like Fitbit or Under Armour, who already have millions of users tracking exercise behaviors and health outcomes, may have the most expertise in fitness or nutrition. Their proprietary data sets could complement DNA in ways that no one else could. Each partner can and should play to its unique strengths.
The same goes for Helix. Very few companies are experts at using cutting-edge technology to sequence DNA like we are. For every user, we read every letter of all 22,000 genes in the human genome using a technology called next-generation sequencing. Think of it this way: if your genes were a book, older technology (called arrays) only read single, scattered letters in that book. Next-generation sequencing reads every letter of every word in the entire book. And we even read letters that scientists don’t understand yet, so when new discoveries are made, you’ll be able to learn as the science evolves. Helix acquires a hundred times more data at a higher quality than anything that has ever been available to consumers.
We obsess over every detail of the process, from the experience of receiving a saliva collection kit to discovering new products. We take care of the hard, technical work — collecting the saliva sample, building and operating one of the world’s largest sequencing labs, storing DNA data securely at scale, and providing means for partners to efficiently access DNA data in ways never done before — so that our partners can focus on doing what they do best and building great products.
2. The user is in charge of their own journey
Historically, DNA has been a one-size-fits-all solution. But the genome is not one product. When it comes to something as personal as DNA, every person should be in charge of their own journey. I might be interested in learning how my DNA affects my sleep patterns, but you might be interested in using our partner Invitae’s applications to learn about your inherited heart or cancer risk. Ultimately, you should be able to choose the areas you want to explore and the partners you trust to guide you on your journey.
As your interests and needs change over time, you can choose whichever application is most relevant to you at that exact moment. Equally important, this approach allows you to choose what you don’t want to know. If you never want to know about your risk for Alzheimer’s Disease, you never have to find out, and no one else will be looking at those regions of your DNA either. If you change your mind later in life, the data is there, ready for you to unlock. This makes DNA far more approachable than previous one-size-fits-all models.
For a consumer, the process is easy. Your DNA is sequenced once. Helix stores it securely on your behalf. Then you can unlock different insights through different partners’ products, all on-demand without sending another sample. We meet our customers where they are, while retaining the ability to serve them in the future.
3. Open platforms spur innovation
Hardware problems are hard. Chemistry problems are hard too. But, when you turn hardware and chemistry problems into software problems, you spark innovation. Platforms can enable thousands of companies to develop creative and novel solutions. Look at what happened when location services rolled out on mobile platforms as a native API, or what’s happening today with voice recognition platforms opening up their APIs.
While many people will look for apps from known brands like Mayo Clinic or Mount Sinai, an open platform also enables nimble developers and new entrants to bring a fresh, new perspective to different parts of your DNA. Exploragen, for example, is building applications that use DNA and the science of taste to match gourmet food and drink with consumers’ palates. Over the next few years, we believe that there will be hundreds of apps developed that harness the power of DNA in ways that are hard to imagine today, developed by entrepreneurs who could be creating the next Uber or Airbnb.
We are excited to see what entrepreneurs, developers, and consumer brands can do with DNA when it’s accessible to them without the barriers to entry historically found in genomics.
As we continue to build our platform, we’ll be sharing lessons learned from our model for anyone interested in best practices. If you’re interested in learning more about building DNA-powered products and services on the Helix platform, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us @my_Helix.
Helix is the leading population genomics and viral surveillance company operating at the intersection of clinical care, research, and data analytics.