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Private genomics industry may be called upon to speed up strategic genome surveillance initiatives

Clevergene, a tech company, offers genomics services for contract research and genetic diagnostics. In an interview, Tony Jose, Co-Founder & CEO, Clevergene, shares details about the significance of genomic surveillance, current and emerging technology approaches in this sphere, its role in developing new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics, Clevergene's offerings and more, with Lakshmipriya Nair

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How has the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the value and significance of genomic surveillance? How can it play a critical role in making the world more informed and adept at preventing and curtailing future epidemics and pandemics?

Verily speaking, the genome is the genetic blueprint of every living organism. It has been found that pathogens such as viruses can alter their genome rapidly to evolve into more contagious and dangerous strains. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the pressing need for constant genomic surveillance of entire populations. This will prove immensely helpful in pinpointing mutant strains and their spatial confines so as to ensure the necessary defensive measures against the dissemination of such lethal strains.

There is a vehement need to recognise the fact that though these viruses may not be pathologically active in other species or the environment any modification in the host’s conditions can render them virulent. It is essential to strictly observe different types of environments whether water, soil, or living organisms. This shall prove fruitful in determining if there is any anomalous surge in the density of a particular microorganism or the accretion of potent mutations in them. This state of the art metagenomic monitoring will help us identify potential virulent threats and deploy crucial measures that are needed for maintaining a healthy and robust ecosystem. This in turn will safeguard humanity by averting pandemics in the future.

How are the current and emerging technology approaches in genomic surveillance of pathogens? How are players like Clevergene ushering better efficiencies, capabilities to this sphere?

The combination of advanced DNA sequencing technologies with cutting-edge data analytics algorithms that are available today has allowed genomics scientists to study a large number of viral strains across the globe in a swift and cost-curtailing manner. This enables the genomics experts to map the evolution curve and transmission pathways of novel strains. Armed with its state of the art genomics lab and next-gen computational capabilities, Clevergene is at the forefront of developing large scale sequencing analysis of viruses including the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We have joined hands with numerous academic and clinical scientists to zero in on mutant strains and discover potential peptide candidates for developing vaccines etc.

What are the challenges that prevent investments and the application of genomic surveillance? How can they be mitigated?

The primary challenge that obstructed our path towards securing a competent genomic surveillance capacity was the piecing together of our state of the art genomics lab. A genomics lab is a high-stakes, capital intensive investment and requires personnel with interdisciplinary adeptness and advanced proficiencies for seamless and effective operation. While it would be certainly non-conducive and far from sustainable to commence stand-alone genomic operations across the nation, the private genomics industry may be called upon to speed up strategic genome surveillance initiatives. Similar to the time when RT-PCR testing was exponentially scaled, this significant scientific endeavour can also be successfully orchestrated.

What are the steps that need to be taken by healthcare stakeholders (public and private) to set-up and run effective pathogen and disease surveillance and detection platforms that are based on genomics and epidemiology? How can Clevergene partner in such initiatives?

Both the public and private health care infrastructure in our country should graduate towards setting up decisive testing and diagnostic procedures that are synchronous with contemporary global scientific standards. Besides corroborating the presence of a pathogen, Genomics testing procedures can also lend valuable insights into a pathogen’s genomic diversity. To that end, there is a need to undertake timely genome analysis of atypical cases to discover novel pathogens and strains. Also, the scientific community must establish meticulous Frameworks that assist in periodical random genome analysis in optimum healthcare settings. This will help in identifying novel strains that have evolutionary capabilities such as antimicrobial resistance, increased virulence etc. We, at Clevergene, will be able to extend our profound expertise regarding genome analysis and sequencing in such cases.

Are you already in partnerships with any health stakeholders (public and private) in India? If yes, please elaborate?

Clevergene has entered into a collaborative Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with CSIR-CFTRI (Mysore) to sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome and derive valuable insights into virus genome changes (mutations), evolution, epidemiology, and provide an understanding of the spatial and temporal information on infection dynamics by studying the SARS-CoV-2 viral strains from COVID-19 patients in the region. This endeavour will be critical in contributing to the national initiatives of genome surveillance; i.e locating novel strains that exhibit greater virulence and threat. We are also seeking to isolate probable mutations in the viral genome that may account for the failure of RT-PCR tests and a down surge in the success rate of vaccines.

What are your plans/strategies for the Indian market which is also very cost-sensitive?

Our R&D team is dedicated to the development of cost-effective genomics assays that can enable reduced costs for the end-user. We are also in the process of optimising technology and automation to the fullest degree so as to amplify throughput, thereby cutting down manual efforts and overhead costs. This enables us to etch a distinct mark in the market and further empowers us to pursue breakthrough researches in genome sequencing and mapping that have the potential to transform human lives for the best.

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