When the Yun brothers were informed their father was diagnosed with a rare gastric cancer, the two genomics professors, who were working part-time at Johns Hopkins University in the US, set out on a mission.
Genomics, or the field of science that concerns the study of genes, broke new ground in 2003 when the Human Genome Project, an international scientific research project spanning 13 years and costing $2.7 billion, successfully mapped and sequenced all of the genes of the human genome.
Fast-forward to the modern-day, and it takes a mere few hours and a minuscule fraction of that original cost to map out an individual’s genes.
Given the recent accessibility of this technology, and the Yun brothers’ expertise, the two made a startling discovery.
“We started to analyze our father's DNA and found out his cancer was actually predictable and preventable,” Sajung Yun tells the Abu Dhabi SME Hub.
The Yun brothers
Fortunately for the Yuns’ father, he was able to make it through, but only after a very aggressive surgery that removed a third of his stomach, which Sajung says “could’ve been prevented if we had detected the cancer much earlier.”
Wanting to save other families the physical and mental anguish of dealing with this inscrutable and malignant disease and many others like it, Sajung set out to create a service that could offer people a chance to understand their bodies and the diseases and chronic conditions they were prone to before they would succumb to them.
After recruiting some of his scientist colleagues at John Hopkins, Sajung and his team spent four years developing an automated solution that could be scaled to a mass audience.
This all culminated in the creation of healthtech startup Predictiv in 2021, where Sajung today serves as co-founder and co-CEO with his partner Mhy-Lanie Adduru, M.D. for Predictiv Middle East.
Sajung Yun, co-founder and co-CEO of Predictiv
“DNA is the blueprint of our health”
While there are a handful of ways genomics companies usually go about collecting DNA samples from their patients, such as via a saliva swab or blood sample, the way Predictiv goes about this is by sending a testing kit to their clients and having them send it back with a fingernail clipping enclosed, which Sajung says is “non-invasive and easy to collect and transport.”
Predictiv then extracts DNA information from this sample and sequences it, rebuilding the “code” for all of the patient’s genes. All of this is made possible via AI and significant advancements in genomics technology. The specific technology Predictiv uses is called “next-generation sequencing,” which is faster, more accurate, and much more affordable than most other sequencing technologies.
Based on this information, the company creates a digital genetic twin of the patient, and in combination with their medical history, family history and lifestyle habits, is able to identify if the individual in question is prone to one or more diseases and conditions from a database of over 22,000, and if they are likely to suffer from complications from using a certain medicinal drug out of a possible 780+.
The results of this analysis are relayed back to the patient by a genetic counsellor who can provide medical advice, while the patient also has access to a digital care concierge team that can resolve any inquiries. Additionally, the patient will be provided with access to a digital dashboard of their digital twin that breaks down the results of their test and acts as a personal medical hub that they or their doctor can refer to.
For example, if a client’s family has a history of high cholesterol, Predictiv’s DNA results would allow the startup to flag if the patient is likely to suffer from this as well, while identifying high-risk drugs given their body’s genetic composition. This information allows a doctor to avoid prescribing certain medication or lowering its dose if the patient’s body would break it down at a slower rate.
A growing market for genomics
The field of genomics is seeing increased attention from innovators and investors, given the advancements in AI and predictive analytics.
Still, Predictiv has endeavoured to stand out from the competition, given their approach of combining next-generation sequencing and the patient information they collect beforehand. Compared to most other companies in the market, Predictiv maps out more genes and tests for more diseases and chronic conditions. This all comes at a fraction of competitors’ prices, coming in at $799, which Sajung attributes to his company employing an autonomous sequencing process.
During the height of the pandemic, Predictiv competed in a healthtech challenge set up by the US Food and Drug Administration to build an AI model that identifies if an individual is at high risk from COVID-19. Each participant’s AI model was fed 80 per cent of a data set of health information for COVID-19 patients, and then each model was tasked with predicting the outcomes of the remaining 20 per cent. The algorithms were then ranked based on their accuracy.
“We ranked 14th out of 35, but our competitors were Google, Accenture, UCSF - big organizations. So it's pretty impressive,” Sajung recalls, noting that his company’s AI model predicted the exact duration patients spent hospitalized by a deviance of no more than 0.4 days when compared with the algorithm results of the top 10 participants.
However, one thing the challenge didn’t account for was genetic data, which means Predictiv’s AI performed significantly well off of medical data alone, and not the startup’s speciality which is genetic information, as Sajung points out.
Navigating the misinformation around genomics
Mhy-Lanie Adduru, M.D. for Predictiv Middle East
While the field of genomics might have seemed like a construct of science fiction in the early 90s, the Human Genome Project and recent technological advances have taught us otherwise.
Still, due to some bad actors in the field, there has been some distrust in the industry.
“Our greatest challenge is that people think that it's ‘too good to be true,’” Mhy-Lanie notes. “Remember Theranos?”
Theranos was an infamous American biotech startup that made empty promises about making it possible to perform hundreds of medical tests from a single drop of blood. Ultimately, things didn’t work out well for them, and this led to a lot of scepticism about genomics.
Predictiv’s pitch, to some ears, could ring of more of the same: One fingernail, your entire DNA sequenced and tested for susceptibility to more than 22,000 diseases and 780 drugs.
“It sounds similar,” Mhy-Lanie says.
But in the case of Predictiv, its technology is different, she says. This is because the startup’s technology is backed by verified scientific processes.
“The fingernail is composed of a protein called keratin, which has a disulfide bond,” Mhy-Lanie explains. “If you break this double bond, you can extract DNA from it and then perform analysis.” Couple this with the fact that Predictiv’s technology has been in development for multiple years, and it’s clear that, unlike Theranos, there is actual science behind its offering.
Additionally, Predictiv maintains transparency and ethical conduct by giving their clients full control of their genetic data and leaving it up to them to decide who to share it with.
Expansion to Abu Dhabi
After witnessing the success of their company, Predictiv has recently expanded operations to the Middle East, with the support of Plug and Play Abu Dhabi, the UAE branch of one of the world's largest early-stage startup support platforms. The support entity has also accepted the US startup into its MENA HealthTech Accelerator, the region’s first of its kind.
Finding a new home at Abu Dhabi’s Hub71, after also being accepted in its H2 2021 cohort of startups, Predictiv’s time here has been quite productive.
“Personally, Dr. Louiza, Sion, Nikita, Babak, and Faris really welcomed us as a family,” Sajung notes on the support his company received from the Plug and Play Abu Dhabi team, which also included access to a wide scope of industry contacts and investors.
Sajung also highlights the support Predictiv received from the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, in addition to the funding received from the UAE government.
Today, Predictiv has corporate partners in the US, Latin America, India, and England, among others.
It has raised a total of $1.15 million at the Seed stage, with a planned round of $3 million in the works.