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[INTERVIEW] Korean firm aims to use DNA tests to preempt health risks

Date : 19-08-26 14:36 Number of views : 34

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EDGC CEO Shin Sang-cheol, who is determined to collect the DNA data of as many people as possible for his genome sequencing and medical diagnosis firm, has already gathered that of over 20 million worldwide. And he is still desperate for more. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul 

EDGC CEO wants worldwide DNA data to revolutionize human diagnosis 


By Ko Dong-hwan

INCHEON ― 
Shin Sang-cheol, the co-founding CEO of Eone Diagnomics Genome Center (EDGC) in Songdo, Incheon, knows he has a high risk of developing lung cancer and multiple sclerosis. A simple test of his blood and saliva samples produced the prognosis. The examination also showed he has a high level of diabetes-causing genes.


Shin, 49, is desperate to lower these risks. Whenever he sees a physician for a regular checkup, he asks the doctor to pay extra attention to early signs of lung cancer and multiple sclerosis. He has already lost 10 kilograms by eating less and walking up and down stairs to help prevent diabetes.

Shin also carries his genome data with him on the smartphone app "My Genome Box." He believes that although he cannot change his genetic makeup, he can still live healthily by changing his lifestyle and environment. 

Established in 2013 by merging San Diego-based genomics company Diagnomics and Korea's EONE Laboratories, EDGC analyzes human genes, diagnoses various potential diseases and proposes clinical solutions. 

EDGC is ahead of other Asian players in the industry. The firm is past genome sequencing's early era when the technology was limited to analyzing only a portion of one's genome based on one or two chromosomes. It's also past the subsequent next generation sequencing era, when a person's entire 3 billion chromosome pairs could be analyzed in less than three days for about 2 million won ($1,650) ― compared to 3 trillion won in 2013. 

The company is now one of the industry's few global leaders that can provide a medically precise prediction and propose ways to live healthier based on genome analyses.


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Shin Sang-cheol's office in Songdo, Incheon, shows hints of his ideas for the company's future. A giant map of China shows one of them, where he plans to introduce a joint venture there with a local firm. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul 

 "Ninety-five percent of gene-sequencing industry players, most of whom are provided with government funds, stop at research," Shin told The Korea Times. "Whereas our bio-informatics team turns research outcomes into something visible for predictive diagnosis purposes."


Clients can receive such a diagnosis through a simple direct-to-customer (DTC) test of their saliva or blood. The company categorizes the risks of cancers, strokes, osteoporosis, depression and Alzheimer's disease ― among others ― under head and neck, upper abdominal, lower abdominal and systemic diseases. 

Each risk is graded in five levels, from low to high, in a client report. For each, a guidebook shows symptoms, prevention methods and the names of related genes. 

In EDGC's predictive diagnoses, genes carrying disease risks are 20 to 30 percent prevalent. This means those who are tested have a much higher chance of preventing the diseases by changing their lifestyles, including diet, exercise and their environment. 

"Genotype-based predictive diagnosis is much more precise than doctors who use stethoscopes, measure blood pressure or inquire about a family medical history," Shin said, adding that there is a considerable chance of misdiagnosis by doctors. 

"It takes less than two weeks to present patients with a genotype-based predictive diagnosis, whereas traditional doctors' appointments often entail follow-ups taking weeks and months. 

"And providing a genome-based predictive diagnosis is hard because it must be done promptly while satisfying government regulations ― those of the food and drug safety ministry, the disease control and prevention center ― and existing academic findings."


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EDGC's headquarters in Songdo is the company's main research and development center. Courtesy of EDGC 

 Genome standard


Shin wants to introduce a global genome standard. And he needs as many genome sequencing results from people as possible for reference. The goal is a cornerstone shared by 11 other international members of the Global Screening Arrays (GSA) Consortium. 

In 2016, the GSA set an initial goal of securing the genome data of 10 million people, with member companies given different assignments. EDGC, the only Asian member, and America's 23andMe took charge of studying individual genotypes and precise medical genomes, while UCLA and the Broad Institute did related research. 

The "10 million DNA project" is long completed and the consortium now has secured the genome data of over 20 million people worldwide. 

Shin compares human genome data gathering to American automaker Ford's legacy of introducing mass production.

"Just as Ford brought cars closer to people, we want to make people recognize DNA as something natural and so popularize genome-based precision medicine," Shin said. "It could be part of people's everyday medical checkup. And it is medical precision that can also lower people's hospital costs and thus the financial burden the country's national health insurance service bears."


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Diagnomics in San Diego, California, is one of EDGC's pre-merger arms. It is also one of the 12 international companies in the Global Screening Arrays Consortium that has been working to bring genetic analyses and medical services closer to the global community. Courtesy of EDGC

About 4,000 medical facilities in Korea and those in around 20 countries use EDGC's predictive diagnostic services, including Thailand's largest private laboratory BRIA and Singapore's Cordlife. EDGC has a marketing branch in most of those countries while its headquarters in Songdo is the main research and development center. 

EDGC India, a joint venture between India, Korea and the U.S., is set to start operating in November with its own lab and marketing bureau, targeting the Southwestern Asian region.

China is difficult to enter, according to Shin, because it doesn't allow the genome data of its nationals to "leave" the country. The only way to expand there is to form a joint venture with a Chinese firm.

Shin wants to build a genome analysis lab and a diagnostic services facility in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, a venue city for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. 

He is also proud that the company has secured bases overseas despite the medical market rarely being open even through free trade agreements.

EDGC's financial performance has been improving ever since its establishment. It recorded sales of 28.4 billion won in the first half of this year alone, a huge leap from 2018 when its total sales were 21.4 billion won. 

The increase was due to a boost in the company's service contracts with global partners, including launching an on-/offline genome analysis service in the U.S., signing with local healthcare firm GBI and partnering with Union Medical Healthcare in Hong Kong.  


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EDGC, which listed on Korea's KOSDAQ in 2018, has set increasing sales records since its establishment in 2013. After annual sales of 21.4 billion won in 2018, it recorded 28.4 billion won of sales in the first half of this year alone. Courtesy of EDGC

Genome treatment

EDGC's big picture is beyond diagnosing people. It is genetic treatments. But this faces huge obstacles as it not only requires medical breakthroughs but also coming to terms with traditional hospitals. Genome-based predictive diagnosis' medical precision can almost pinpoint the cause of disease risks as early as in the womb, reducing a patient's treatment costs and time. 

The country bans genetic firms other than medical institutions from conducting tests related to the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of a disease. And the hospitals have a strong influence on the health and welfare ministry, pushing the government to curb the expansion of direct-to-customer (DTC) testing so people will not bypass them. 

"The current health system focuses on disease," Shin said. "But the future will have a much wider spectrum than that ― a patient's wellness based on prevention, nutrition and health management." 

And genetic treatment could also face opposition from some religious groups concerned about it interfering with their teachings. For now, EDGC is extremely cautious about the advancement.

Shin's business strategy is built up from his previous career and experience at Samsung Securities. Now he is intent on further analyzing the common denominator of the human genome ― that's 99.9 percent of human genes ― while others, he says, focus on the rest that accounts for individual variations.

If his genetic treatment service is eventually introduced, it will open a new chapter in an industry that was blown wide open in 2000 when American geneticists Craig Venter and Francis Collins completed the human genome project in just four years, when it had previously been expected to take more than a decade.

"What I had agreed with Diagnomics Chairman and EDGC co-founder Lee Min-seob upon establishing EDGC was that we wanted to popularize the genetic industry globally," Shin said. "And my focus is on the 99.9 percent where I can find value for all." 


 

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