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The genome-sequencing startup Nebula Genomics has signed up its first biopharma partner, the San Francisco-based company announced on Tuesday, a step toward realizing an unusual business model it calls “sponsored sequencing”: Customers can have their full genome sequenced for free if they let Nebula share their (anonymized) DNA and other data with corporate partners, with blockchain technology assuring data privacy.

The partnership with EMD Serono, the biopharmaceutical arm of the German chemicals and pharma giant Merck KGaA, is a pilot program to test Nebula’s technology and platform, said Nebula chief scientific officer Dennis Grishin. “But we hope it will help drive interest from other potential partners” that believe they can use DNA data to drive drug development, he added. If a particular DNA variant seems to be associated with, say, epilepsy, that gene or its downstream products might be a drug target.

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