Repositive: 'Our core platform is like an Airbnb for genomics'
Continuing our focus on finalists in the Cambridge Independent's Entrepreneurial Science & Technology Awards with Manuel Corpas (pictured right), scientific lead of biotech finalist Repositive.
History may not be altogether kind to David Cameron’s Premiership but one hopes that, when the time comes, his biographers won’t lose sight of the fact that he made one of the most enlightened decisions any prime minister has made when, in 2012, he allocated £100million to the 100,000 Genomes Project.
The result of that investment is not just that 100,000 patients with rare diseases or common cancers had their genomes sequenced – it is that Britain has become the world leader in gene testing. And one of the fastest-developing firms in the leading pack of the world’s genomic research organisations is Repositive.
Manuel Corpas is the scientific lead at Repositive. I caught up with him at Repositive’s current residence, the Future Business Centre. He’s happy to have a chat. “I switch from scientist to evangelist for the media phase,” he explains, and indeed there is much to discuss. The human genome was first sequenced in 2003 and access to its own genetic make-up is potentially the most profound knowledge trail humanity has yet acquired – and Repositive provides a unique service.
“We index every human genome data set that comes from research or from organisations,” Manuel says, “and have compiled a catalogue of 1.2 million human genome data sets, the biggest repository on earth, so we have a very big overview of all human genome data sets.
“If a company comes to us looking for genetic markers for autism, we advise them and provide links and awareness of the data sets relevant to their research needs as part of our mission to link providers with users.”
Genomics, rather like crowdfunding five years ago, is progressing so fast there’s not been time to develop an online architecture to make it easily accessible, which is where Repositive comes in.
“Our core platform is like an Airbnb for genomics – we recognise that there’s a lot of data published, fragmented around the internet, and that access procedures are very difficult, and we’re acting as the portal of the marketplace for people looking to find human genome data.
“All of our biological processes, or capabilities, functions, the chemical processes that occur in a cell can be mapped to the human genome: now we need data sets to understand how we inherit as well as how we develop diseases. And we’re experts in human genome data. Our specialism is connecting producers of human genome data with consumers of human genome data – that is universities, libraries and so on. There is a lot of data out there, just as in Paris there’s a lot of hotels for a romantic weekend, but when you’re booking a room you don’t look at every hotel’s website, you go to a portal.
“The big problem we find, and why Repositive makes sense, is that the data is there but people don’t know exactly where it is and even if they did know where it is the process of accessing it is so burdensome, so the result is that the generation of those data sets is not being optimised – they’re not as accessible as they could be.
“There is a social contract which is that those people who give their genetic data expect it will be maximally used but it’s not, because of technical and legal issues, so we’re trying to deliver ethical human genome data sharing, the process is happening at the hospital level but its potential is not being used. My mission is to raise awareness.”
Manuel, a native of Malaga, came to the UK after he was turned down for a medic’s course at a Spanish university. “I went to the closest thing – biomedical sciences,” he says. After acquiring a degree at Manchester in 2007 he went to work at Spain’s National Bioinformatics Institute for a year. “Then I was headhunted,” he adds. In 2008 he began working at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, where he stayed for four years before starting his own research group at the Genome Analysis Centre at Norwich Research Park.
“I stayed there for four and a half years as project leader, and developed my own research programme, until 2016. Then I saw Repositive. We were collaborating in research projects, I saw how they were growing, saw that I’d be happy working with them and I wanted to be part of their success so I talked to them and I became the person leading the scientific aspect. I started in September 2016. A year in a start-up feels like a very long time. The rhythm is frenetic – it feels like we’re in Silicon Valley. We have huggles, processes, feedback rituals and a very strong sense of team spirit and mission, and that’s one of the distinctive features about Repositive, and we’re in the fortunate position now of being one of the leading start-ups in the sector.”
Repositive has three services to offer. The first is data scouting – extracting information from the library of human data sets. The second is to offer accounts which allow users to access this data: currently these are available as a freemium offering, but the revenue stream will come on board when the premium service goes live. The deadline for delivery of this monetised service is March 31, 2018.
The third service is the development of the PDX platform, where PDX stands for ‘Patient-Derived Xenografts’. PDX models are very useful for research purposes, which may explain why one of Repositive’s customers is AstraZeneca.
“You have a patient with a tumour, you take some of the cells and put them in an immune-compromised mouse – an in vitro model – so you can find what the right drugs are to cure the tumour. This is a very useful model for research – each tumour is different.
“AstraZeneca came to us to say they’d like to form a consortium to find and access PDX models and we’re now developing a platform. You’re looking for genetic markers and matching the ones AstraZeneca wants to do research with and what the vendors are selling – that’s what Repositive is doing. To match vendors and consumers.”
The wider issues involved in this sector are, of course, immense. Manuel reads out a tweet he’s posted today, a quote from cell biologist Jennifer Doudna. “The power to control our species’ genetic future is both awesome and terrifying,” it says.
He pauses. “I couldn’t have expressed how I feel better than that, and being in Cambridge is being at the heart of it. My biggest mission is to raise awareness of the challenges as well as the opportunities in this field.”