“Data is at the core of what we do”: in conversation with John Colenutt, Genomics plc
Festival of Genomics London is one week away! Ahead of the event we sat down for a chat with John Colenutt, CEO of Genomics plc, to talk bioinformatics, the era of big data, and what the company will be getting up to at the Festival.
FLG: Tell us a bit about the history of Genomics plc, how the company got started and what you are looking to achieve in the genomics sector.
JC: Genomics plc was started in 2014, so not that long ago. There are four main academic founders behind the company, with the two most senior being Professor Peter Donnelly, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, and Professor Gilean McVean, Director of the Oxford Big Data Institute. The founders saw a big commercial opportunity in the explosion in the numbers of people being genotyped and soon to be whole genome sequenced. They were also excited about the opportunity to make a difference, both scientifically and in improving human health. In the academic world you’re very constrained for resources and you’re worried about the next bit of grant funding. One of the exciting things about a commercial opportunity is that you can do things much more quickly and you can apply a lot of resource to solve a problem.
The founders Peter and Gil, along with Gerton Lunter and Chris Spencer, are amongst the top scientists in this field. They all come from a statistics background and have worked on some of the biggest international projects in terms of advancing the science, such as WGS500 and WTCCC. Simply put, Genomics plc is about applying sophisticated tools to an extensive genotype/phenotype database to learn about human biology in humans. We apply this in drug development, where the study of human genetics can really help to derisk targets compared with, say, purely looking at in vitro data and animal models. Utilising our data, our science, and our software development capabilities, we are also developing clinical tools that we expect to meaningfully impact human health.
It’s an ambitious company, it’s a young company, but we really want to make a mark in this field and to lead in this kind of genetic analysis.
FLG: 2015 has been a landmark year for Genomics plc, with a number of high profile partnerships including Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Genomics England. Clearly you have a very exciting offering, could you give us an overview of what makes your analysis platform so unique?
JC: Data is at the core of what we do, and we’ve put a lot of resource and time into the creation of a very extensive genotype/phenotype database based on very many different studies. These represent the results of analyses of around 2 million participants, with approximately 170 unique phenotypes within the database. Whilst this is largely derived from publicly-available research data, no-one has really pulled them all together before, and we’ve spent a lot of time curating the data to put it in a consistent format so one can interrogate it effectively. So I’d say that the breadth and depth of data is unique, the bespoke tools we have created are unique, and the team of scientists who are working on the data are world-leading.
We are applying this platform to real-life problems for pharma companies, including Merck, Eisai, Biogen and Vertex, and our first clinical tool is already in beta-testing with some big names in high-volume NGS, so we’re really pleased with the progress across our business. This is a testament to the efforts of our team of 40, principally comprised of scientists and developers.
FLG: What is the development within the wider field of genomics that you see the most opportunity in and that is particularly exciting?
JC: The sheer volume of data that is now becoming available. The bottleneck now is not obtaining genetic data but the interpretation of that data. The exponential growth in NGS data is being compounded by the amount of phenotypic information becoming available too. This includes from biobanks, population sequencing projects, such as Genomics England’s 100,000 Genomes Project and the Precision Medicine Initiative in the US, and as electronic medical records data become linked. Furthermore, we expect the data to remain siloed, adding further levels of complexity to cross-study analyses. The potential to learn about human biology is tremendous, but it’s going to take top science, the most sophisticated tools, and new ways of integrating and packaging the data so that one can meaningfully interrogate it.
FLG: Looking ahead to the Festival of Genomics London, what will Genomics plc be focussing their Festival activities around?
JC: One of the Founders, Dr Chris Spencer, will be giving a presentation on Wednesday 22nd January in the Enabling Data stream, which will include demonstrating the breadth and depth of our database using a genome browser, and showing some of the useful information that one can derive with the right tools. Our focus will be around that presentation, demonstrating the quality of the data we’ve already collected, showing some of the potential in the pharma space, and more generally in terms of the scientific value of what we’ve been doing.
FLG: What are you personally looking forward to at the Festival this year?
JC: You’ve got some big name speakers, a lot of very interesting presentations, and it’s a great opportunity to network, but a number of conferences provide that. What I’m excited about is that the Festival is a conference with a twist. It’s got some fun features – I still don’t know what a Talkeoke is! – and you’ve got some fun, interesting ways of accessing some of the themes of the conference. So I’m interested in listening to speakers, going to talks and networking, but also enjoying some of the different aspects of the Festival. It’s a Festival, it’s not a conference.
FLG: Thank you for your time, and is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
JC: We have just formed a scientific advisory board to help the company grow and to make a difference, and we have just appointed Sekar Kathiresan as Chair. Sek is based in Boston, he’s very involved with Harvard Medical School and the Broad and Massachusetts General Hospital, and he’s a world renowned cardiologist and geneticist. He’s also very well-connected as one of the experts helping to steer Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative. We’re very excited to have him join the team; this shows the company’s ambition, and I know that he’s very excited to be joining us.
I’d also like to say that we continue to look for the best statistical geneticists to work with us. We think that the speed we are moving at and the sheer volume of data we can access, makes Genomics plc a great attraction to statistical geneticists looking to apply their skills to real world problems.