By Benjamin Ross
April 15, 2019 | Othram was awarded a research sequencing grant from Illumina Accelerator after presenting at SXSW for the “Digitizing Biology Through Genomics” session as part of the Energizing Health House program. Founded in 2018, Othram is a new technology company that operates a state-of-the-art forensic DNA sequencing laboratory, focusing on reconstructing genome sequences from degraded and low-input DNA sources.
David Mittelman, Othram’s co-founder and CEO, has years of experience in the filed of genomics. He told Bio-IT World that Othram is an opportunity to use genomics technology in a way that is currently being underserved.
“There are a lot of skilled folks working on ontological cancer tests, and the same goes for consumer genomics,” Mittelman said. “But I’ve been fascinated with use cases in criminal cases or cold cases.”
Mittelman says innovations like Illumina’s NovaSeq and a continual decrease in the price of sequencing has made Othram’s work feasible.
The Othram team is currently piloting its technology for humanitarian efforts to establish identities for challenging and unidentified remains.
The system used by criminal justice DNA databases, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), contains the DNA profiles contributed by federal, state, and local forensic labs. Mittelman says CODIS’s cost-effective approach to DNA analysis leaves holes in the system.
“The challenge of CODIS is you’re not getting a powerful way to compare relationships between people,” said Mittelman. “CODIS is a great way to confirm identity in an established, validated way for a court of law, but there leaves room in areas where CODIS doesn’t have the ability to connect you to a known profile. A victim may not be in CODIS, or a perpetrator without a known profile wouldn’t be in CODIS. Then what do you do?”
Othram scans the entire genome of a sample, enabling them to compare the DNA sequences against databases that contain millions of genomes. Mittelman says the company also uses machine learning models, called polygenic scores, that look at thousands of genetic changes in order to predict traits like height, hair and eye color, etc.
One Othram pilot partner is the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit initiative that combines modern genetic and traditional genealogical methods to identify John and Jane Does. Othram is providing DNA Doe with its whole genome sequencing-based product, says Mittelman.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to take victims who have no voice, figure out who they are, and give them a voice, anchoring them back into a family tree.”
Currently working on several cases at various stages of completion, Mittelman says this is where Othram has hit an inflection point. $4 million raised in a Series A round funded the completion of construction for a new forensic sequencing laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas.
“If sequencing was easy, everyone would be doing it,” Mittelman said. “When we’re sequencing non-fresh, degraded, low quantity samples that don’t run well, then we need specialized lab methods and specialized bioinformatics.”