How healthtech startup Bione aims to use genetic testing in the fight against coronavirus
Ever since the Human Genome Project began in the late 1980s, genetics and DNA have become topics of mass interest. The book Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 chapters states that ‘the genome is a book that wrote itself’, continually adding, deleting, and amending for over four billion years.
For Dr Surendra Chikara, who has been working in the field for over 20 years now, the idea of founding Bione, a healthcare startup, was a no-brainer.
Founded in 2019 in Bengaluru, Bione is a B2C platform for genetic and microbiome testing, and uses AI for predictive analysis of dietary and lifestyle recommendations.
“Monitoring the present coronavirus outbreak scenario in the country, we have included new parameters to our Longevity Plus kit. The new updated kit provides information about the susceptibility of a person to viruses like coronavirus, SARS-like viruses, HIV, Hepatitis C virus, etc. This could be based on an individual’s genetic makeup or the patterns of living,” Surendra says.
Working on coronavirus testing
Surendra says a recent addition to the Bione Genetic test can check an individual’s susceptibility to coronavirus. He adds that the platform’s microbiome test, combined with its predictive analytics tools and artificial intelligence, can provide tailored recommendations to individuals to strengthen their microbiome and improve their immunity.
“A research paper titled 'Evidence of gastrointestinal infection of SARS-CoV-2” revealed that 23.29 percent patients infected with SARS CoV-2 showed positive results in stool after showing negative in respiratory samples. Hence, the gut microbiome test is the only way to know when a virus is no longer in your system,” Surendra says.
The team is yet to conduct the test on patients tested positive with coronavirus but is in the process of sampling. It is also coming up with a COVID-19 diagnostic test, and tying up with a vaccine company.
Surendra started his career with recombinant DNA technology and worked with Dr Gita Sharma, who had created the first r-DNA vaccine for Hepatitis-B in India.
“My journey in genomics started under her support and guidance. It was the time when human genome sequencing and next-generation sequencing were starting to gain importance. We were in discussions to bring D2C technology to India, but the Indian healthcare market was not ready for direct-to-consumer genetic testing," Surendra says.
He realised that access to quality, affordable healthcare was still out of reach for the vast majority of people in emerging markets. Most prescribed medications were developed in the West for a predominantly Caucasian population, and often had no evidence of efficacy in other populations.
Need for genetic healthcare startups
“This is a huge problem that all my networks were aware of. We all know that the future of the global pharmaceutical industry lies in developing precision medicines tailored for individuals based on their genes, and clinical risk for developing a disease. Indian genetic data is highly diverse and a number of breakthroughs can happen. At Bione, we are doing our part to be part of this bigger picture of making India disease-free,” Surendra says.
Bione works on a simple process from placing an order to getting reports. It takes only a few steps to purchase a test kit online and get a report.
The different types of kits depend on the number of tests covered, and include Longevity kit, Longevity Plus Kit, and MyMicrobiome kit. The Longevity Plus kit covers over 415 parameters, including health, personalised medicine, fitness, and wellness.
The team claims that it also covers a parameter that determines specific gene variants that may contribute to enhance resistance to viruses like coronavirus, HIV, Hepatitis C, and many others.
The MyMicrobiome kit identifies and quantifies the microbiome in the gut, based on which a personalised diet is recommended.
Surendra says scientific research has shown that the gut microbiome plays an important role in the function and maintenance of our immune system. In ideal conditions, this microbiome-immune system alliance allows the initiation of protective responses against germs.
“However, in developing countries, changes in diet patterns, increased use of processed food, exposure to pollutants, sedentary lifestyle, and overuse of antibiotics have changed our microbiota. There is a lack of resilience and diversity essential for a strong immune system. This change in the microbiome is believed to account for the dramatic rise in the rate of infections and diseases. MyMicrobiome test reveals imbalances in your gut and what you can do to improve it,” Surendra says.
The platform also offers sample collection, with samples collected from an individual’s homes. A pick-up is arranged as per your convenience by Bione. The DNA sequencing is done in a well-equipped lab by expert scientists, after which a detailed report is prepared.
Bione gXplore is a user-friendly, informative, and interactive app-based platform. On it, you can go through your report and easily understand the results of DNA analysis.
Slots with genetic or food and nutrition counsellors are provided as a free-of-cost service. The expert team of counsellors guides you to proactively plan your and your family’s health and lifestyle choices.
The team and certifications
The Bione team consists of experts from global institutions and scientists domains of genomics, genetics, bio-IT, genome informatics, quality assurance, sales, marketing, genetic/nutrition/fitness counselling. The startup has a total team size of 39 people.
The core team includes also Dr Ruchi Dana, a physician with an MBA from Stanford University. She was named Forbes ME Power Businesswomen 2020.
The startup also runs a lab with scientists, bioinformaticians, and genetic counsellors. The team is applying for ISO 9001:2015, followed by CAP and CLIA accreditation to follow global standards.
Bione is projecting to test 20,000 to 30,000 samples in the first year of operations. Tests are priced between Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000, with the option of paying in EMIs. Customers can choose the package based on their needs.
“Bione’s core focus is on quality and genomic counselling for meaningful outcomes of genetic and microbiome tests, and for diet and fitness through MySmart diet and MyCool Fitness as the output,” Surendra says.
Differentiator and the future
The startup has raised angel funding from a clutch of undisclosed investors.
Currently, startups like The Gene Box and Hyderabad-based MapMyGenome work on providing preventive solutions based on an individual’s genetic makeup.
But Surendra says Bione is the only company that combines genetics and the microbiome.
He says the startup's high tech lab is using advanced technologies, including whole genome sequencing, while the competition is still working with array technology with limited markers.
“Our target is to serve 250,000 to 300,000 people per year by 2021. To achieve this, we have to expand in Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai, and also to the Middle East and other countries,” Surendra says.
(Edited by Kanishk Singh)