A Q/A with Chris Gardner, Sequence Bio

Published: May 30th 2019
Photo Credit: Dave Howells

The founder population of Newfoundland and Labrador make it an ideal place to conduct studies linking certain genetic markers with diseases prevalent in the province.  Sequence Bio, a private St. John’s-based biotech company, recently cleared a provincial regulatory hurdle to allow it to launch the NL Genome Project this summer to study the unique genetic makeup of Newfoundland and Labrador. The company’s hope is that the data will lead to improved treatments and health outcomes. We caught up with Sequence Bio CEO and co-founder Chris Gardner recently to talk about his vision for the company, the project, and what gets him excited to go to work every morning. 

What inspired you to co-found Sequence Bio in 2013? What was your vision for the company?

I have always been excited by the biggest and most important challenges. And healthcare is up there – it has such a wide, and significant, impact on all of our lives, but innovation has traditionally been slow. Now we are at this exciting crossroad because of rapid advances in genomics, personalized medicine and sequencing technologies. And for me, this presented an incredible opportunity to accelerate innovation and help deepen our understanding of disease and improve patient outcomes.

But what makes this opportunity truly special and inspired me to start Sequence Bio is that we believe the right place to make change happen is Newfoundland and Labrador. And even better, we can do it in a way that ensures that communities, families and participants in Newfoundland and Labrador benefit for generations to come. Innovation that brings everyone along and leaves no one behind is my vision for Sequence Bio.

What makes Newfoundland a good place to study genetics sequencing?

Modern drug discovery relies on the right kind of information. This information isn’t found everywhere, but it is found in Newfoundland and Labrador. And it all starts with our unique history. As a founder population, it’s estimated that over 90% of our province’s residents are descendants of approximately 25,000 English and Irish settlers from the 1700’s. Founder populations like ours are rare, and can identify genetic changes from tens or hundreds of people instead of thousands or millions in other admixed populations. Coupled with our province’s high disease rates and comprehensive longitudinal health records, we believe Newfoundland and Labrador is the best unexplored cohort for human data to discover novel variants and potential drug targets.

Sequence Bio’s main focus has been to lead a large-scale genetic research project in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Now that the company has cleared the provincial regulator hurdle, where does that project stand? What are the short-term and long-term goals?

We’re incredibly excited to share that the pilot phase of the NL Genome Project is launching this summer! This pilot phase will recruit 2,500 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians through participating physician’s offices. We’ll combine genetic information from a simple saliva sample, with medical records, to deeply characterize the population and help design a larger research project in Newfoundland and Labrador with tens of thousands of individuals. All with the long-term goal to produce novel, validated drug targets no one else can find.

How do you access the patients in these studies? And what is done with the data you collect?

Sequence Bio is working with local, dedicated family physicians who see the value of integrating genomics into their own practice and the ability to positively influence the care of their patients. For the NL Genome Project, participating physicians will introduce the study to interested participants, who can then enroll with a research nurse at the clinic.

There is no greater priority to Sequence Bio than protecting participant data. Sequence Bio’s security program is built to align with ISO 27001/2 standards. All data is handled with extreme care and is immediately encrypted using AES 256 bit encryption and protected with the latest military-grade security measures. We know that if we want to be trusted with people’s most personal information, we have to earn that trust.

You are a recognized innovation leader. You’ve been named a Change Agent by Canadian Business and you’ve been asked to sit on the federal government’s Health/Bio-Science Economic Strategy Table.  You’ve said that Canada is sometimes slow to embrace change. What’s slowing us down and how can we as a country and a society do more to nurture innovation?

Canada’s regulatory processes present significant hurdles for the rapid adoption of innovation – reducing patient access to leading-edge therapeutic products and harming the international competitiveness of Canadian health and biosciences firms. This is why modernizing Canada’s regulatory processes is something I am so passionate about.

An effective regulatory environment ensures patient safety and well-being while encouraging the development and adoption of innovative products and services. Innovation and improved patient care are not mutually exclusive – in fact, it’s quite the opposite, they go hand in hand! A high performing regulatory system should be predictable, efficient, consistent and transparent, while ensuring patient safety and encouraging innovation. It’s been done in other jurisdictions and it’s time for Canada to do the same.

Things move quickly in the biotech world.  But six years after you launched your company, and even after a number of setbacks, Sequence Bio remains proudly Newfoundland.  What does this province mean to you, and what do you hope to accomplish that will benefit the people of this province?

We believe that to be successful we have to build a company that makes the entire province proud. That’s why the model for our population genetics project ensures that the people who contribute to research also benefit from that research. We’ll share discoveries with local researchers, policy makers, and doctors across the province. Plus, all participants can choose to receive findings about their genetic makeup, including information on medically actionable genes and carrier status information.

Our genetic founder population has the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to health research, and we can ensure research participants benefit at the same time we build a great company.  We have the chance, right here in Newfoundland and Labrador, to change lives by coming together and being part of ground-breaking research.

What role does Government play in projects like yours?

Initiatives like ours have the potential to reap social, economic and health benefits, but there are still incredible associated costs and risks – from sequencing to storage to infrastructure. Through job grants, SRED credits, subsidies, or non-dilutive funding, Government plays a critical role in helping with the underlying costs and risk management for those willing to innovate. And the return on investment benefits us all as we create the next generation of companies that will drive economic and regional growth. Our country has the opportunity to be leaders in genomics, but the only way we can do this is if we continue to support public and private research and work together along the way.

Finally, can you tell me a little bit about Sequence Bio? What about the company culture & philosophy gets you and your team excited to go to work every morning?  

We have a committed team in Newfoundland and Labrador and with teammates across Canada. We all come to work for our own reasons, but I can say with confidence that it all comes back to a shared desire to make this province a better place for us all – through improved healthcare, growing the biotech sector, and tackling the diseases that impact this province the most. We know what we’re trying to do is ambitious. But whether it’s our leaders in science, technology or research, we all believe it is possible. And I think in the end, it’s that drive, passion and commitment to the province that makes this such an incredible company.