Kerala Technology

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Trivandrum startup eyes global role in genetic profiling

Sagenome chairman Dr M Ayyappan says his company’s genome sequencing kit has generated enough response in the local market.

Trivandrum startup eyes global role in genetic profiling

PV Harikrishnan By PV Harikrishnan, on February 27, 2023
PV Harikrishnan By PV Harikrishnan, on February 27, 2023

Ask any new parent, and they will tell you how important it is to get all vaccinations done to protect their precious bundle. Recently, the United Kingdom announced that 100,000 infants will undergo genome testing along with mandatory vaccinations to assess their risk of 200 rare genetic disorders. This will help parents take mitigating steps and reduce the risk of developing such illnesses.

Experts say that this kind of evaluation could soon become universal as genome sequencing becomes as vital as vaccinations in ensuring a healthy future. While the use of such advanced technology may sound too futuristic in this part of the world, the reality is that this cutting-edge health technology is already available in Kerala. 

Just navigate through the back lanes of the Pettah area of Trivandrum, now officially known as Thiruvananthapuram, and you will find a lab equipped to map and analyse your genetic makeup from saliva samples.

There is a common belief that the startup world is only suitable for millennials and Generation Z. However, Sagenome, founded in 2020, is the brainchild of Dr M Ayyappan, who retired as the chairman of the state-run HLL Lifecare Ltd (formerly Hindustan Latex) in 2016. During his tenure, he transformed HLL into a high-profile health company with a global presence.

That track record led to this new venture. “We have established a state-of-the-art genome lab in Trivandrum,” says Dr Ayyappan with a sense of pride. His vision is to make Kerala a leader in genomic science, a rapidly growing field globally.

“As far as my knowledge goes, genetic labs that offer facilities for testing, research, and training like ours are rare in India,” says Ayyappan. The lab, which cost around four crore rupees (approximately 485,000 US dollars), houses state-of-the-art machines from renowned life science machinery manufacturers in the US, such as Perkin Elmer and Eppendorf. The company is also in the process of acquiring a DNA sequencer machine.

To get a genetic profile done, all one has to do is provide a saliva sample using the “OhMyGenome” kit provided by Sagenome, and the sophisticated machines at the lab will compile a report documenting your biological blueprint and highlighting any potential weaknesses later in life. The company now charges 58,999 rupees for the test. As genetic makeup remains unchanged from birth to death, people of all ages can avail themselves of this test.

To obtain a genetic profile, individuals can simply provide a saliva sample using the “OhMyGenome” kit offered by Sagenome. Sophisticated machines at the lab will then compile a report that documents their biological blueprint and identifies any potential weaknesses that may occur later in life. The company currently charges 58,999 rupees for the test. As genetic makeup remains unchanged from birth to death, people of all ages can benefit from this test.

“One thing many people ask is why do this if you are no longer young. That is a mistaken notion,” says Ayyappan. He draws on his personal tragedy to illustrate the point.

“My mother had to undergo a mastectomy when she was in her eighties. A genetic analysis earlier would have alerted us to the possibility of such a problem, and she could have avoided developing breast cancer.”

The awareness of such corrective measures is still largely unknown here, despite the publicity it received when Hollywood star Angelina Jolie had a mastectomy to reduce her chances of getting cancer, as she had a mutant gene that could have led to the disease.

Early warnings through genetic testing will allow individuals to reduce potential health risks by taking appropriate actions such as lifestyle changes, undergoing more frequent medical screening, or seeking early medical intervention if needed.

Genetic testing is used by doctors now, but typically in some complicated cases related to IVF treatment. Ayyappan says genetic profiling can better the treatments, as genetic data will give the doctor insight into how a patient will react to different medications. He foresees a time when every patient will have a record of their genetic profiling viewed along with other medical history during hospital visits.

He believes that treatments and medicines would become highly individualistic as the genetic information would enable physicians to tailor treatment that is suited to the individual's needs rather than taking the one-size-fits-all approach of modern medicine. This, he says, blends perfectly with traditional medical systems like Ayurveda, which also follows such an individualistic approach.

The Sagenome chairman says genetic information should not be confined to use in medical science alone. Such information can be used to enhance the wellness of individuals also. Sagenome has plans to introduce a range of tests covering fitness, skill levels, intelligence, and skin and hair conditions.

The main challenge in developing a market for genetic testing is the lack of awareness among the public and health professionals about the possibilities of this science, according to Ayyappan. He believes that the benefits of genetic testing extend beyond just medical science and can contribute positively to the overall wellness and quality of life of individuals.

In addition to medical applications, genetic profiling can also be used to determine compatibility between partners by providing clues about their personality traits. Ayyappan suggests that even dating apps would find such information useful.

Currently, Sagenome is seeking a partner to help scale up its operations. The startup has established a facility for testing and analysing genes, training technicians as well as educating health professionals about this science. The firm has already received backing from an undisclosed angel investor and is looking to turn its facility into a major centre for genetic sequencing.

According to Dr Ayyappan, samples can be processed in various countries and then sent to the lab in India for analysis, which would be more cost-effective. However, he acknowledges that there may be regulatory hurdles to overcome concerning health data privacy and compliance. In India, Sagenome is a registered startup under the central government's Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), and the company says no drug or laboratory licences are currently required.

Sagenomics has now grown to employ around 34 staff members, including pioneers in the field of genetics and counsellors who can guide people getting the gene tests. The company's genetic profiling kit is already available in the market and generating interest among those who are aware of the potential of this science, according to Ayyappan.



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