What your genes foretell

Swetha Kannan | Updated on December 09, 2012 Published on December 09, 2012

Saleem Mohammed, CEO and Co-founder, XCODE Life Sciences

When things seem to be going so well, an unexpected event can literally throw one’s life out of gear. Seemingly healthy people, many so young, are today falling prey to lifestyle diseases. What if you know whether you are genetically predisposed to them, so that you can take corrective action before it is too late?

Scary as it may seem, many people actually want to know this, says Saleem Mohammed, founder of Chennai-based biotechnology start-up XCode Life Sciences.

The company has pioneered a preventive wellness programme to fight diabetes, obesity, stroke and cardio vascular diseases.

The programme aims to identify an individual’s predisposition to these lifestyle disorders by doing a DNA analysis of his or her saliva sample. It also checks whether an individual can metabolise fat and carbohydrates.

A report with the risk scores (low, moderate and high) is then generated, along with a personalised nutrition and fitness plan. Nutrition counsellors take people through their report, over phone.

The package also includes a pocket guide and newsletters. Individuals can store this data along with their vital clinical data such as blood pressure and lipid profile on the cloud. The programme costs Rs 9,999.

“We are not into treatment; this is only a preventive programme. It is one step ahead of your master health check-up and can be done even on infants,” says Mohammed, 34, a PhD in bioinformatics.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in Chennai, Mohammed moved to the US to do his master’s in industrial engineering at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. After this, he joined a Phd programme in bioinformatics at the same university.

It was a long-term dream to start a business on his own, says Mohammed. The urge was fuelled by the fact that genome sequencing (reading the DNA of an individual) was becoming a big rage in the US around 2008.

“The first draft of the human genome had come out in 2002. And the second draft was released in 2007 by Dr Watson, the founder of the DNA structure,” says Mohammed.

Mohammed closely followed a company in the US – 23andMe, a Google-funded company which does genome sequencing, and saw an opportunity in genomics in the virgin Indian market.

At that time, Mohammed’s mother was being diagnosed for diabetes. “So I wanted to know my risks. I did a test in the US. I was okay. But I also realised there was nothing like this in India. I thought with my training and education, I had to start something like this in our country.”

Mohammed was back in India. Though the seed for an entrepreneurial venture was sown in his mind, it was only after a two-year stint at Monsanto Research Centre in Bangalore that Mohammed got around to his own business.

In 2010, Xcode was incubated at Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), under the government MSME scheme. Later, Mohammed met R. Narayanan of Chennai Angels (a network which mentors early stage ventures), who joined him as mentor and investor.

Shead Holdings, a micro-venture capital fund from the US, and Narayanan (also the past president of TiE) have invested $2,50,000 in XCode.

XCode has a team of nine people across Chennai and Vellore (the R&D centre is at VIT).

It has tied up with a third party lab in Hyderabad for storing and testing the saliva. The company has around 50 customers (mainly middle to upper middle class) across the country. It is targeting 1 lakh customers in two years.

Currently, XCode is screening only for a few hundred genetic markers. Its ultimate aim is to do whole genome sequencing that involves around 3 billion markers. “As we screen for more markers, the accuracy of our predictions goes up. This involves processing tonnes of data. We will evolve as a big data company in the lifesciences space in five-six years,” says Mohammed.

XCode is also engaged in research to extend the scope of the risk assessment to cancer and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Genetic testing

Scaling will take time, as spreading awareness about genetic testing is not easy, says Mohammed.

“Right now, master health check-up has become routine among people; few years ago it was not. So genetic testing too will get there.”

XCode is talking to hospitals to offer genetic testing as part of master health check-up. “This will help us establish another channel. It will also bring in lot of value to doctors and patients. We also plan to talk to corporates.”

As it looks to expand its business, XCode is looking for venture capital funding of $4-5 million.

Published on December 09, 2012
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