Sunscreens, vitamins, anti-oxidant rich foods. It sometimes seems like half the space on drugstore shelves is devoted to products that claim to protect our DNA from damage. Exactly why DNA damage matters and what to do about it is never totally spelled out on the label.
DNA damage happens throughout life, and the body is constantly doing repair work. But DNA can accumulate damage and mutations as cells age or because of environmental and lifestyle factors, like radiation or toxin exposure or smoking. But while scientists have found damage levels are associated with risks for a number of diseases, such as cancer and neurological conditions, there’s isn't yet a straightforward test for DNA damage.
A small startup company spun-off from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wants to change that. Exogen Biotechnology is distributing its DNA damage test kits via a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo as it hopes to collect hundreds of samples to help develop a simple diagnostic test that could be used at home or at the doctor to predict disease risk. The company hopes DNA damage level could one day be as common a piece of health information—and as useful—as cholesterol monitoring.
The evidence isn’t there yet. Studies have only monitored specific and small populations. To understand how DNA damage relates to different factors for a large population, Exogen needs a lot more data, which is why it is running the "citizen science" project on Indiegogo. "It’s essentially crowdsourcing the problem," says co-founder Jonathan Tang, a researcher in computational biology with Lawrence Berkeley.
Contributors who order one kit ($99) take their own blood sample at home, send it back to Exogen, and fill out an online questionnaire. Exogen gives them results, which measures a specific kind of DNA damage called double-strand breaks. The results compare an individual’s results to those of the larger group of supporters. The company hopes interesting patterns will be revealed in the data, such as geographic or seasonal variations. They’re also encouraging people to order multiple kits ($179 for two, $349 for four) and conduct their own experiments in how a lifestyle change, such as a new diet, could alter their own DNA damage level.
"Ordering monthly or quarterly kits, you can start tuning your lifestyle for healthier DNA," the Indiegogo video says.
Of course, it's not yet clear what someone should do to tune their lifestyle or what "safe" level of damage they should aim for. Exogen isn’t allowed to offer any medical advice yet, since it’s not okayed as a diagnostic tool by the FDA, but the company hopes to gather enough data to support a clinical trial and eventual market approval. It says that an independent review board did review its protocol for the citizen science project and plans to give ethical oversight.
A pilot project of about 100 patients, done before the crowdfunding campaign, already showed a few associations: Older people had higher levels of DNA breaks, as did the few people who had cancer compared to others their age. So far, 555 people have funded the Indiegogo campaign offering more than $85,000 in support (the campaign closes in two days). Exogen wants to get to more than 1,000 people in total before it brings its data to the FDA.
The technology and methods to measure DNA damage have existed since the late 1990s, but it used to be tedious work. To process large volumes of samples, Exogen has automated some steps with software that analyzes microscope images rather than a technician. "The big difference is that we can do it fast and accurately, and there’s no human bias in the approach," says co-founder and biophysicist Sylvain Costes.
The crowdfunding approach is helping the company gather more data quickly, but the technique does have its pitfalls, because people need to understand what they’re signing up for. "Bringing science to the public has been challenging," says Tang. "I feel like we’re doing a lot of education right now to the public, and trying to help them understand the value of it.