It's All In The Genes: Genomic-Tech Company NoorDX Is Addressing The Lack Of Localized Genomic Testing In Saudi Arabia
With plans to have a fully functioning state-of-the-art genetic testing facility in Saudi Arabia by the first quarter of 2022, NoorDX's aim is to localize genetic testing in the country to ensure that it no longer needs to be done in overseas labs.
As the world continues to grapple with the consequences of the coronavirus crisis, there have been plenty of shifts in thought processes when it comes to life and business alike. The field of healthcare, for example, has seen increased importance placed on helping medical experts as well as patients make informed decisions. It was around this time that the discourse around genomics also quickly gathered pace.
Put simply, genomics is the study of a person's DNA and genes. When I ask the CEO of Saudi-based genomic and bioinformatics startup NoorDX, Dr. Abdulelah Alhawsawi, how he would explain the concept to someone who was hearing the word for the first time, he says, “Genomics is the basic unit of life; think of it as the code of life”. And before even delving into what his startup does, Alhawsawi brushes up on something most of us may have learnt in middle school. “Every cell in our body has 46 chromosomes, and on every chromosome we basically have the genome, which is the whole DNA,” he explains. “That whole DNA has more than 20,000 genes. Genes are just smaller units of the genome, and these genes encode everything that make us human beings!”
Launched in November 2021, and located at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Innovation Cluster, NoorDX is described by Alhawsawi as a “genomic-tech” company. With plans to have a fully functioning state-of-the-art genetic testing facility in Saudi Arabia by the first quarter of 2022, its aim is to localize genetic testing in the country to ensure that it no longer needs to be done in overseas labs. “90% of the genetic testing today in Saudi Arabia does not happen in Saudi Arabia,” explains Alhawsawi. “It actually gets sent to North America, Europe, China and other countries in Asia. So that was one of the biggest reasons, and inspirations, for why we needed to localize this.”
That, in part, would explain NoorDX’s motto: “by Saudis, in Saudi, for Saudi.” With its focus solely on collecting genetic data from within the country, the startup’s business model is quite clearly mapped out at the moment. The services NoorDX offers focus on three different types of genomics- medical, quality of life, and research and population-based genomics. The genetic testing that Alhawsawi alludes to in the previous statement is essentially what medical genomics is all about. “Using genomics to help with diseases in terms of diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis is called medical genomics,” he further explains. “But then there's also the quality of life and wellness genomics, which is a very exciting field in doing genetic-based wellness for individuals. So rather than just treating diseases, we also use genomics to make sure that people are well and their immune system is promoted.” As for the third type of genomics, Alhawsawi says it entails assisting existing genomic studies in the country. “The research aspect is going to be about catering to researchers across the country since there's a big demand to help them with genomic sequencing,” he says.
NoorDX's foray into genetic testing is not its first collaborative effort in biotechnology within KAUST's walls however. During October this year, the startup developed a single-step, multi-use RT-PCR test at the KAUST labs. The test was eventually released for public use after being approved by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority. With the kit costing comparatively lower than other PCR tests available in Saudi Arabia and enabling results to be delivered to personal devices via QR code technology within 24 hours, it was a major stepping stone towards the goals NoorDX has today as a genomic-tech company.
Over the next 18 months, or Phase One, NoorDX will be focusing primarily on providing medical genomic testing, and functioning as a B2B company. “We will be engaging with hospitals at this stage,” says Alhawsawi. “And it will be mainly for the clinical departments of pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, oncology and hematology-oncology, and neurology. Most of our service menu, if you will, will cater to the big demand that is coming out of these four departments. Our goal over the first phase is to become the market leader in genomics and to be viewed as a reference in genomics.” Some of the services intended to go underway over the course of the coming year include whole genome sequencing, whole exome sequencing, targeted gene panels, targeted metagenomic-based pathogen diagnostics, cytogenetics, as well as non-invasive prenatal testing. The startup also has plans to shift towards becoming a B2C platform during Phase Two, wherein customers can directly receive customized treatment plans through NoorDX’s services.
But this is where the conversation becomes intriguing. “Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in general has one of the highest, if not the highest, rate of genetic disorders,” explains Alhawsawi. “This is because of obvious reasons which are that people tend to marry from the same family or from the same tribe, and there are marriages between cousins too. So, it is estimated to be four times the global rates of genetic diseases.” What Alhawsawi remarks upon also aligns well with what existing researches about the Middle East clearly show- lack of data owing to massive underrepresentation of the region in genomic studies. With the obvious prevalence of genetic disorders and a glaring lack of infrastructure to address and solve it, the inspiration behind creating NoorDX is not hard to see.
But Alhawsawi, who continues to be a part-time practising liver surgeon, also alludes to another inspiring factor- the viscerally heightened interest in genomics from various stakeholders in the country. “The other driving factor in creating NoorDX is that genomics is going to disrupt healthcare, and it's going to transform healthcare as we know it,” he says.
Don’t let the sudden hype around the concept of genomics let you believe that this is a new branch of medical science though. The Human Genome Project, a US-based research led by a team of international researchers, commenced in 1990 and is attributed as the starting point for the study of genomics. In the case of NoorDX too, the idea behind its creation was initiated nearly four years ago – much before the COVID-19 crisis. But it was KAUST’s guidance and assistance that truly helped in catalyzing the startup’s journey from a mere concept to a business plan, according to Alhawsawi. “What KAUST is trying to do is use its innovation cluster to act as a biotech platform to attract biopharma and technology, and really get this ecosystem organized and moving forward,” he adds. “Also KAUST’s track record in genomics is well established which gives us kind of a differentiator as currently we have a lab within KAUST. But our goal is to have operations not just in KAUST, but also hopefully by Q1 of 2022 in Riyadh as well, as we head towards the series A funding rounds.” Notably, KAUST is also one of NoorDX’s three main investors.
Now, with hopes of also catering to the issue of national security, by no longer having to send out sensitive information about residents outside Saudi Arabia, Alhawsawi is optimistic about the upcoming months. “Not only are we catering to a huge demand in localizing genomics, but as we sequence more and more patients, the database and the analytics that would come out of that, is going to be very attractive for biopharma and biotech companies,” he adds. “That's going to be very helpful for recruiting patients for clinical trials, especially for cancer patients.”
With all this on NoorDX’s plate already, Alhawsawi is prepared for what it could mean when globally popular gene technologies such as CRISPR make their way into the Saudi Arabian market. “The future is also very bright because when technologies such as CRISPR, which is a gene editing technology, come into Saudi Arabia, we're going to be the entity to help localize it and move it forward!” And that ultimately continues to be Alhawsawi and NoorDX’s goal. “I just don't see any way other than localizing genomics going forward,” he declares. “It is a good business strategy, a good national security strategy, and a good sustainability expectation.”