Why you should care
Because apps like these could help lower your risk of disease.
Imagine using your DNA sequence to plan your life. Before you hit the gym, your phone buzzes with a personalized workout routine based on an analysis of genes linked to your risk of heart disease. Stopping at the grocery store, your phone buzzes again, this time offering wine recommendations drawn from genes that shape your perception of taste and smell.
That’s the world Justin Kao imagines. In 2015, the 33-year-old entrepreneur co-founded Helix, a Silicon Valley company he compares to an app store — only for genetic tests. Helix mails customers a spit-sample-collection kit, reads the genome sequence contained in the sample and stores it in the cloud. Customers can then order various assessments based on analyses of their genome from partnering companies through a DNA app store. These assessments would list everything from predictions of heart disease risk to tailor-made nutrition plans. It’s an intriguing idea, although some experts question how well genetics can predict disease risk, much less nonclinical traits, which draw on a host of social and other environmental factors.
Unlike the more established 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which offer one-time reports, Helix can be used repeatedly, and customers can request different reports each time. Plus, Helix analyzes all 22,000 genes, rather than just single points in the DNA code, joining the swelling ranks of companies harnessing next-generation sequencing — from Human Longevity, which offers “data-driven health intelligence,” to WuXi NextCODE, provider of whole-genome wellness scans. DNA sequencing has become cheaper and easier over the past decade, and in April, the FDA allowed 23andMe to sell 10 tests for disease risk, which “could give the green light to other companies,” says Scott Roberts, director of the University of Michigan’s Genomics, Health and Society Program.
There’s been an underinvestment in helping people tailor their lives before they become patients.
—Helix Co-Founder Justin Kao
Kao Skypes from Helix’s headquarters in San Carlos, California, where he lives with his wife and two Shiba Inus. He has a nerdy college bro look, with a baby face and a black T-shirt bearing Helix’s logo. But Kao’s laid-back demeanor belies an analytic nature and penchant for strategy. A native of SoCal suburb Rancho Palos Verdes, he enjoys tactical board games and the military sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. At Stanford, he studied chemical engineering and completed the bioengineering master’s program. He considered a Ph.D. but felt his research would be too far removed from real-world application. Instead, he picked up Stanford business and law degrees and spent five years at private equity firm Warburg Pincus. As VP of the health-care technology team, he was known for grilling CEOs in a manner Tony Chou, Kao’s former colleague, likens to mental tap dancing. “I always found Justin really good at that,” Chou says.
Meanwhile, Kao’s gears had started to churn. While the NIH and others pour resources into understanding disease (partly because it’s easier to target and enroll sick patients for clinical trials), “there’s been an underinvestment in helping people tailor their lives before they become patients,” he says. He wondered whether DNA could provide that lifetime road map.
In 2013, Kao decided to have his genome sequenced, planning to use the data “to make smarter decisions.” But manually combing through his genome was “painful.” Kao and Helix co-founders James Lu and Scott Burke teamed up with biotech behemoth Illumina, using its sequencing technology for Helix. Their goal is to build the infrastructure that enables other companies to develop DNA testing apps, taking care of the “hard parts,” like e-commerce, saliva collection and sequencing. As unsexy as it sounds, this way, he says, “our partners could immediately begin building products.”
Customers will pay $80 for a saliva-collection kit, using it just once, and then buy apps to assess various aspects of their genome, sequenced from that single saliva sample. And, just like Apple’s app store, partners will set the price of their apps (starting around $10 and climbing to $100 or more for those that assess disease risk). Helix already offers a $149.95 National Geographic ancient ancestry test, and when the store opens this summer, it will offer apps that evaluate cardiovascular risk, as well as some that provide wine recommendations and personalized fitness and nutrition plans.
Michigan’s Roberts thinks the field of gene sequencing “is poised to expand dramatically,” noting, “There’s such a vast amount of information from whole genome sequencing that I do think people are going to be interested.” And customers’ knowledge of their disease risk could empower them to take steps to lower that risk, he adds.
But risk information may not be enough to change complex behaviors, such as diet and exercise, Roberts says. Likewise, although Helix “may actually be a successful venture,” genetics aren’t dispositive on most health conditions, which are influenced by a host of environmental factors, says Wylie Burke, professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Bioethics and Humanities. Genomics will be most helpful in pinpointing rare genetic mutations — like those affecting the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which elevate breast and ovarian cancer risk.
“We have very good evidence that genomics correlates with certain traits,” Kao maintains, and he emphasizes every app launched with Helix will undergo a rigorous scientific evidence evaluation process before it debuts on the app store. Whether Helix lives up to its promise remains to be seen, but chances are Kao is already strategizing how to invest in the genome’s vast wealth of data.
* Correction: The original version of this feature had the incorrect price for the saliva-collection kit and the wrong date for when Helix was founded.