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Biotech start-up wants to unlock Africa’s diverse genetic data

By , IT in government editor
Africa , South Africa , 03 Nov 2021
The BixBio team, from left: Pieter Ross, James Ross, Tyronne McCrindle and Kevin Durandt.
The BixBio team, from left: Pieter Ross, James Ross, Tyronne McCrindle and Kevin Durandt.

Biotech start-up BixBio is targeting early next year to commercially rollout its software platform that aims to address some of the shortcomings with current approaches to genetics testing, says co-founder and bioinformatician James Ross.

This, after the Cape Town-based start-up was selected as one of seven new genomics companies to join the third global funding cycle of Illumina Accelerator.

Co-founded by Ross and molecular biologist Tyronne McCrindle two-and-half years ago, BixBio builds software that’s designed to analyse genetic information, with a focus on people of diverse genetic backgrounds, specifically people with diverse genetics in Africa.

Ross tells ITWeb that part of the challenge of genetics testing is underrepresentation, meaning not enough diverse African genetic data is collected. In addition, most of the analysis that has been done is on European and Asian genetics data.

“What we are saying is that you can collect as much data as you want, but you also need special tools to analyse that data,” he states. “You can’t just apply the European algorithms that have been developed at this point on that same data – you’re going to lose out.

“The tools that have been developed – as amazing as they are – generally have not been developed with diverse genetics in mind, and we think that affects the results generated. For people in Africa, it means that despite paying for very expensive tests, you end up with results that are inferior. [Resultantly], we’ve built some tools around that. Our goal is to unlock the power of the diverse genetics in Africa.”

According to Ross, the start-up did a proof of problem study, in collaboration with biotech venture investor OneBio,which helped the start-up with some funding.

“Genetic testing is very expensive, especially if you want to do high-confidence testing that we have to do to prove that these problems really exist.

“We’ve done genetic testing and we’ve seen significant shortcomings in the current approaches – we were able to prove this is a real issue for individuals using the services.

“We are busy building the ‘Bix Patch’, which is a tool that addresses a lot of the shortcomings with current approaches. We’ve got an MVP [minimum viable product] in place, but we’re hoping to have something commercial by the end of the accelerator, which will be March next year.”

He further explains that a big part of developing these tools is collecting lots of data. “The data we’re looking at collecting is from healthy individuals and that makes us pretty unique. Most people are interested in individuals with some sort of genetically-related disease, but we want to get an idea of what normal variation looks like in a population first.

“We’ve also developed an annotation platform, which is a process that helps us when we pick up genetic variation in an individual. It helps us describe that variation and talk about the consequences of that variation, which is very important in a clinical setting.”

Global recognition

Ross points out that BixBio is the first company from Africa to make into the Illumina Accelerator.

The US-based accelerator provides selected start-ups with access to Illumina sequencing systems and reagents, as well as business guidance, genomics expertise, and fully operational lab space adjacent to its campuses in Cambridge, UK or the San Francisco Bay area.

The BixBio team decided to spend the next six months at Illumina's campus in Cambridge, UK, states Ross. During this time, the team is looking to leverage the accelerator’s expertise, networks and global reach to commercialise its tools and technologies.

“We’re an early stage start-up and we’ve got a vision for our technology,” he notes. “We’ve got a couple of approaches that seem to be yielding results but we’re not yet ready to commercialise that.

“This accelerator is really about commercialising interesting scientific ideas that we have and turning what is, at the moment, quite an exhaustive process into something that we can sell and make available.”

Ross highlights that genetic testing is becoming more and more important, as it helps doctors decide what type of medication is appropriate.

The goal, he adds, is to overcome the shortcomings of existing technologies, to build new software that addresses these.

BixBio wants to support anybody working with diverse genetics in Africa. “We’ve identified a problem pretty early on, and very few people have actually made efforts to address the issues that we see.

“We think at the moment that any approach but ours is missing out on what makes African genetic data interesting. We think it’s very important to make sure we’re not just collecting data from Africa, but we’re analysing that data in the right context and with the right insights.

“We really see a huge value in creating this bio-economy in Africa. We think there are all the infrastructures here already to do this work and give access internationally to insights rather than to raw data,” he concludes.

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