DNA of Diseases

Nexus-trained GnomikX provides saliva-based genetic testing, and counseling, for prevention and management of lifestyle disorders like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

By Paromita Pain

March 2020

DNA of Diseases

Raja Shukla (from left), Aditya Chauhan, Surbhit Johri and Attya Omer of team GnomikX, a start-up that helps identify early signs of diseases like diabetes and hypertension through genetic testing. Courtesy GnomikX

Diabetes is a major health concern in India, and the number of people being diagnosed with it is growing every year. Nearly 50.9 million people suffer from the disease in the country, according to the Diabetes Foundation of India, and by 2025, this is likely to go up to 80 million. According to the Texas Heart Institute, obesity is the leading risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Further, “High blood pressure (or hypertension) is twice as likely to strike a person with diabetes than a person without diabetes. Left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease and stroke,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

All these factors worried Surbhit Johri, a dual-degree graduate in biology and electrical engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani (BITS Pilani). “Obesity, diabetes and hypertension have a strong genetic component, and are today considered ‘lifestyle’ diseases,” he says. “What this means is that with early detection and lifestyle changes, they can be managed and, in some cases, avoided.” His company, GnomikX, co-founded with others from BITS, is a health care start-up that works to simplify the identification of these diseases and ensure early intervention and treatment.

Testing and counseling

GnomikX offers saliva-based genetic tests to help people know their risk of acquiring diabetes, hypertension or obesity. Saliva collection kits, ordered online, come with simple instructions to spit in a tube. The tube is then collected by a delivery partner and shipped to GnomikX’s laboratories. These labs are certified by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) and use state-of-the-art technologies to extract, process and analyze DNA from saliva. After the kits are tested, customers are sent easy-to-understand reports that explain the possibilities of them suffering from obesity, diabetes or hypertension. “It’s not enough to just tell people how prone they may be to obesity and hypertension,” says Johri. “It’s important to explain the steps they need to take to stay healthy.” So GnomikX also offers online video sessions with nutritionists, genetic experts and physical trainers to help customers bring about the required behavioral or lifestyle changes. This combination of testing and counseling costs about Rs. 3,000.

Johri spent a summer interning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the Khorana Scholar Exchange Program, which is supported by the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum and WINStep Forward. “At MIT, much of my work revolved around stem cell-based research, where I was trying to model genetic switches to create drugs to cure lymphomas,” he says. There, he met Attya Omer, a researcher who immediately recognized the potential of helping people make healthy shifts by understanding risks through DNA examination. Eager to be a part of something that works for positive change, Omer was among the earliest members of the team at GnomikX.

Motivated by his own family members, whom he saw battling obesity and hypertension, Johri wanted to use his knowledge and training in molecular biology and combine genetics to help people adopt a preventative lifestyle. Many of his family members were GnomikX’s earliest customers. The team was also part of the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at American Center New Delhi, which provides training on sharper business pitches and propositions before a product is marketed and connects selected teams to mentor and venture capitalist networks.

Not just genetics

Johri and his team aim to ensure that customers not only get reports about genetic risks, but also receive advice about precise and actionable changes to improve health and well-being. “When we first launched, we thought we are just biologists and worked on improving our saliva tests,” says Johri. “But when we realized that customers found so much more value in the interactions with the nutritionists and trainers, we immediately amped up our efforts in these areas.”

GnomikX is heavily customer-focused. Their feedback is extremely important and, as Johri says, this often helps examine the product from new angles. The founders also consider GnomikX to be part of the wellness space, with genetics forming an important component. They would, therefore, like to build a database of health and lifestyle choices that can be used for research to further the understanding of health concerns and preventive measures. “We want to help people live a preventative lifestyle and genetic testing is one of the ways we are doing this,” says Johri. “We want to find more effective ways to help people adopt the recommendations provided.”

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.



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