Impact investors aim to invest in companies providing innovative, impactful solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges, such as the provision of good health and well-being. In this article, we take a closer look at genomics, an innovative technology with the potential to improve healthcare efficiency, reduce suffering and ultimately save lives.
Genomics: a definition
Genomics is the study of genomes (a complete set of an organism’s genetic material), and how these genes are expressed and interact with each other. It offers exciting potential for improved health and well-being outcomes in a variety of medical fields, such as the diagnosis of rare diseases and cancer treatment, but also in other industries such as agriculture.
One of the most exciting applications of genomics is genetic sequencing. This involves ‘reading’ an organism’s DNA – the language of life. There are 3 billion base pairs in the human genome, roughly equivalent to 200GB of data (or the capacity of a typical computer). It took over 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to sequence the first human genome*, but technological advances mean today it can be done in under 24 hours for less than $500.
*In actual fact this only sequenced 92% of the human genome. With technological advances it was only in March 2022 that the final 8% was sequenced, providing the first gap-free human genome, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
The role of sequencing in fighting infectious diseases
Genomics lays at the foundation of the surveillance of all infectious diseases. From sequencing the strain of flu virus in circulation (which determines the development of the flu vaccine) to testing for ebola, and more recently in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Zhang Yong-Zhen and his team sequenced the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 in China, and along with Professor Edward Holmes in Australia, released the genome publicly in January 2020. This ultimately led to researchers and companies across the world working on vaccines and testing kits without having to come into contact with the virus. Furthermore, genetic sequencing has played a key role in monitoring the spread and evolution of the virus and variants.
Understanding population health
Genomics also has an important role to play in population health, bringing the genetic dimension into the discussions and understanding of health issues facing populations.
In the UK in 2018, Genomics England and the NHS completed their target to sequence 100,000 human genomes of patients affected by rare diseases or cancer. The next target is sequencing 500,000 human genomes by 2024. A follow-on study analysed 4,660 of the initial 100,000 genomes, leading to new diagnoses for 25% of participants. While leveraging genomics in population health discussions is still in its infancy, it will likely play a key role when setting health policies in the future.
“Genomics has huge potential to deliver better health and well-being outcomes, across many different areas. From speeding up the diagnosis of diseases and developing new treatments, to tracking the spread of viruses, creating more durable crops and even identifying security threats.”
Saving lives of those with rare diseases
The lengthy diagnosis of an illness can be a painful and frustrating process. This is especially true for sufferers of rare genetic diseases, where uncommon symptoms and limited awareness mean that patients are often passed from one specialist to another, usually facing several misdiagnoses along the way. Children with rare diseases typically wait an average of 6-8 years to be diagnosed, but genomics could help to greatly reduce this figure in the future, by comparing a patient’s genome with a reference genome.
Many other applications
There are many other medical applications for genomics. For example, it can be used to discover which specific genetic mutations led to a patient’s cancer, helping to inform more specific and effective treatment. Another emerging field is pharmacogenomics, where researchers study how genetics influence our responses to different medications, therefore helping to tailor the types and amounts of medication used in treatment.
However, genomics isn’t limited to the healthcare industry. Within agriculture, the study of plants’ genetic information can help to naturally develop new varieties of crops, with higher yields or greater resistance to pests and extreme weather. Similarly, the study of livestock DNA can help to improve breeding practices. These developments can help to ensure humans receive the nutrition they need as the global population continues to grow. And by looking at longer timeframes, genomics can also help us to understand the evolutionary process of all living things.
Investing in genomics
With so many different applications, we believe genomics will drive a revolution in healthcare. The total market is expected to reach more than $128 billion in size by 2030, as new products are developed, costs continue to decline and the overall number of genetic tests rises. Companies innovating in the field of genomics could therefore offer an attractive option for impact investors looking to invest towards better health and well-being outcomes while potentially generating a financial return.
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