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It's in the genes

It's in the genes Gene talk: Acharya (left) says that genomics can change the lifestyle of people | K.R. Vinayan

Mapmygenome offers genetic tests that will tell you what diseases you are prone to

Would you like to know how prone you are to alcoholism, diabetes, baldness, obesity or nicotine dependence? Mapmygenome is a Hyderabad-based molecular diagnostics company that performs genetic tests that are designed to help people to get to know about themselves.

“It might look like we are playing God,” says Anu Acharya, who founded the company in April 2013. “But we are only informing people which way their health is bound to go. I am writing a book titled ACTinG God. My aim is not to extend life, but every individual should be able to live life in a healthy way.”

Genes in all living organisms, from human beings to bacteria, carry four specific organic molecules, ACTG, which stand for Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine. So Acharya merely put the `in’ between ACT and G and added 'God'. One genome can have 7,00,000 data points.

“I got a test done for myself and realised that I am prone to diabetes,” says Acharya. “Your genes account for 26 per cent of risk for diabetes and the rest depends on your lifestyle. When you are aware that you are prone to a certain disease, especially diabetes, you can make a change in how you live. You will be much more careful in what you drink and eat.”

Mapmygenome offers a number of products in personal genomics, brain wellness, molecular diagnostics and forensics. Its team comprises biotechnologists, statisticians, geneticists, bioinformaticians and medical counsellors. It is popular among corporates who want their employees to take the tests as part of their health check-up. It works with hospitals, too. Right now, says Acharya, it is a health care mess in India and by 2020, there will be an 80 per cent increase in lifestyle diseases. Many of these diseases can be prevented if you are forewarned.

Acharya studied in IIT Kharagpur and then went to the US where she started a consulting firm in 1999. In 2001, she returned to India to cofound a bioinformatics company called Ocimum Bio Solutions with three others. That is when she started getting interested in genomics. “What bothered me was that people were not aware of what genomics could do,” she says. “It could change the lifestyle of people and the way they live.” She wanted to start a consumer division in Ocimum but the board did not approve so she did the next best thing by starting a new company—Mapmygenome. She worked on algorithm and database for three years.

“We had a large database which we called Gene Logic that cost us almost $10 million to acquire,” she says. “We had 22,000 human samples and mined a lot of information about diseases. Our research in India focused on how to make medicines more personalised. The data we collected could be used by pharmas to make more effective medicines.”

Mapmygenome does face competition on the diagnostic side but very few companies are offering predictive services. Its latest genetic mapping product, called Genomepatri, decodes DNA-based health problems like male baldness, cancer and diabetes inherited from ancestors. “Some diseases are latent and pop up suddenly; when you check the family tree, you notice that someone in your family did have that problem,” says Acharya. The test, which costs Rs.25,000, can also help you choose the best drugs based on your system. Soon, it might become part of routine check-ups in hospitals.

The sample processing and analysis takes six to eight weeks. Genomepatri also offers by-products like Cardiomap that evaluates your chances of getting heart diseases. Webneuro is a web-based 30-minute test that assesses the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of the individual. Mapmygenome is currently working on a product that will help predict whether you are likely to get tuberculosis. The trained personnel will ask you detailed questions about your family history, parents and yourself. Your current medical report will also be required. Products are available online so a do-it-yourself swab kit, that includes a strip with which you can gently scrape the inside of your mouth, can be couriered to you which you can send back once the test is taken. Then a report will be formulated based on a thorough analysis. The company also offers sessions with trained counsellors who can decode your health report for you and advise you on the changes you need to make.

There is also a customised version of Genomepatri—Ge Know Me—that helps you find out about specific conditions out of a list of 50. Each condition is charged Rs.250. Acharya has partners in Malaysia, Chile and parts of Europe. Mapmygenome recently raised pre-series A funding round of $1.1 million (approximately Rs.7.3 crore).

The Indian audience has not yet adapted to the concept, feels Acharya. Says she: “People should understand that it is not only about them but also about those that they impact.”

QUICK BITES
ANU ACHARYA

A goof-up
We made a few mistakes while recruiting for the US by selecting candidates who did not fit in well
Childhood dream
To win the Nobel in Physics On speed dial
Friends, husband, home, driver
First office
One on Banjara Hills
Top on to-do list
To get 200 million samples in our databank

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