Improving the diversity of global genomic data could hasten medical breakthroughs — and that's the goal of Gen-t, a Brazilian startup working to infuse biotech with genetic data from the country's population.
For Lygia da Veiga Pereira, founder of the company, she said it's more than just building a company, it’s about advancing science and medical technology.
“The field keeps saying that we need diversity, but most of the diversity in the world is in countries with [the] least developed health systems,” said Pereira in an interview with TechCrunch. “Lack of diversity became sort of the mantra for the field, and I saw an opportunity, because if Brazil had anything to contribute, it would be with our diversity.”
Today, less than 1% of genomic data is collected from people of Latin American and Hispanic origin; 87% comes from people of European descent. With so much data coming from a European background, this population gains earlier benefits from precision medicine.
Without diversifying that data, Pereira said it can’t lead to greater medical advancements.
“When you study a population with an ancestry different than European, the chances to make novel discoveries of genes associated with different phenotypes is increased, just because it's uncharted territory,” she said.
Gent-t has a partnership with Dr. Consulta, a network of medical centers in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, to recruit participants for its initiative. Currently, the company has efforts across four clinics in São Paulo and over 200 active participants, despite being fairly new, with its soft launch back in June. Patients must give informed consent before any testing is done.
Gen-t is looking to have over 200,000 participants and maintain contact with each of them across a five-year period, if not longer. Currently the company is looking for participants 45 years of age or older.
Assuming the company reaches its enterprising goal of 200,000 participants, the notion of making genomic data more inclusive is ambitious. Companies like 54gene and Nucleus Genomics are also fighting this uphill battle.
In addition to private efforts, the Pan American Health Organization has been conducting genomic and health research within Latin America. But recent efforts within the PAHO have been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gen-t has been able to garner support and raised 10 million Brazilian Real ($2 million USD) in a pre-seed funding round led by Eduardo Mufarej, with participation from Armínio Fraga, Daniel Gold from QVT Financial LP and Roivant Sciences.
This round’s funds will go toward building out the startup’s technical teams and beginning clinical research.
The road to more diverse genomic data may be a long one, but Pereira hopes this initiative will inspire others to find ways of contributing.
“We're working on building a model to also make the platform available to academia … because the more people doing research on the genetics of our population, the better it is for the population and for science in general,” she said.