Genome sequencing promises to shake up the pharmaceutical and medical industries and plenty of companies are lining up to capitalize. Among them is Sequence Bio, whose St. John’s location gives it a distinct advantage over its competitors. Newfoundland’s biggest city is not the next biotech boomtown or tech talent fountainhead. It is, however, an isolated community, which makes it the perfect place to study gene sequencing according to Sequence Bio president and COO Chris Gardner.
More than 95% of Newfoundland’s population came to the island from western Europe in the mid-1700s, Gardner explains. Since then, there’s been very little in-migration to the region, meaning that genetically, the people are fairly homogenous. That makes the province “one of best sources of this type of information in the world,” says Gardner. Newfoundland and Labrador also has some of the highest per capita rates of a number of diseases, including colon cancer, diabetes, and psoriasis. By sequencing a large portion of the population and finding the links between those conditions and particular genetic indicator, the company hopes to be able develop more effective treatments.
Gardner and CEO Tyler Wish co-founded Sequence Bio in 2013. The biotech startup recently added nearly $4 million from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Data Collective to a smaller seed round. The money will help the company grow its team from 15 to 20 and launch a testing program later this fall. Sequence Bio plans to decode the DNA of 100,000 people—about a fifth of Newfoundland and Labrador’s population—and the provincial government is partnering with the company to help recruit consenting patients and provide access to their health records.
In addition to his own venture, Gardner is an active participant in the Newfoundland and Labrador startup. He’s the volunteer executive director of TEDx St. John’s, and in 2012 he started a co-working space called Common Ground, which now has over 130 members. “I went down to Silicon Valley a number of years ago, and there were places where you just get [hit] with this entrepreneurial energy when you walked in the door,” recalls the business graduate. “Newfoundland didn’t have anything like that.” Sequence Bio still works out of Common Ground.
In the near-term, Gardner says Sequence Bio plans to make the results of its work available to participants, allowing them and their doctors to use the genetic to inform prevention and treatment strategies. Eventually, the company plans to use the large data sets for early-stage drug discovery. “We’re not going to be taking something through to a phase three clinical trial,” Gardner explains. “When we find something that’s really interesting, we’ll look to find a partner who can help bring it to the next step.”
Gardner says Sequence Bio is at the leading edge of what the medical industry is set to become. “In 20 years or less, your doctor will consider your [genetic] information before giving a prescription,” he says. “That’s what we [call] modern drug discovery: Finding the right treatment for the right patient at the right time.”