BERKELEY -- Every day, up to 10 double-strand DNA breaks occur in each of the 70 trillion cells making up your body. It's a natural part of aging and the body has a built-in repair kit. But eat too many french fries, get an X-ray, breathe truck exhaust during a morning traffic jam or just lose out on the genetic lottery: your body's natural repair mechanism could go haywire, leaving trillions of broken helixes, potentially causing havoc.

Scientists know that genetic, lifestyle and environmental forces trigger the DNA damage linked to diseases like cancer and neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's. What they do not know, is which factors are most important and how much any one person can do to control the damage.

Exogen Biotechnology, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spinoff led by biophysicist Sylvain Costes, thinks it has a way to find the answers. Although the 43-year-old scientist's expertise in radiation risk modeling, a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in nuclear engineering and his tendency to see a home tiling project as "mathematics on the floor" are key to the startup company's novel breakthroughs, Costes predicts the answers will come from a unique source: you.

Enrolling citizen scientists in the quest to map geographic patterns and better determine individual DNA damage risk factors, Costes and EB co-founder Jonathan Tang are building the world's first DNA damage database. A $70,000 Berkeley Lab Innovation Grant refined the six-piece kit Exogen developed in the lab's biohacker location. Costes, in an interview at LBNL, said a large cohort is necessary -- up to 100,000 people, if big data is to track patterns correlating to big problems, like cancer. For that, EB will need angel investors with seed money and, eventually, FDA approval.

In the meantime, an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised $50,000 in under 10 days and is ongoing.

Individuals pay $99 ($204 for international participants; $999 for one-year monthly tracking) for the kit that safely collects three drop-sized blood samples.

Using a sterilized lancet, participants place the samples in vessels filled with fixative solution, answer a few questions at EB's secure, online registry and drop the package in a FedEx box.

"Voilà," says Costes, a native of France, "It's like a home cholesterol test. We analyze and make the results available to you via a secure login." Results show the participating citizen scientists where they fall in their demographic. Exogen provides no medical advice and, at this point, none of the researchers make any money. "It's a scientific endeavor, not a business," Costes says.

If it's that easy, one wonders, why hasn't it been done before? Costes says the current DNA damage assessment system is not easy: it's time-intensive and subjective. Lab workers use eight-prong, hand-held dispensers, laboriously pumping samples into tiny indentations in a tablet.

Under the microscope, images are fuzzy, leading to human error.

Costes' research showed that two people looking at the same image came up with different DNA break counts. And even the same person, asked to view a single image on two different days, provided different totals.

Reducing manual processing with robot handlers is Costes' future dream, but his automatized image scanning, analysis, and an algorithm for plotting results has already streamlined the process and translates into results with meaning.

Costes expects the technology will benefit special populations--identifying and protecting people who are ultrasensitive to ionizing radiation--and the general public.

"Green tea -- we are now reading studies that show it isn't so effective. But we have no data," he says. "Wouldn't it be good to know for sure? And antioxidant creams: they tell you they will cause you to age slower. We can tell you whether or not they work. Is that crossword puzzle slowing my Alzheimer's? Is what I am doing affecting my DNA?"

Privacy and scientific progress are often at loggerheads and Costes says EB has moved aggressively to address those concerns. The collected data is split on three servers to disconnect the information from the individual. Each database is encrypted. "Even if you are a very smart hacker, it would be a lot of work for information that will not tell you anything," Costes says. Exogen's long term goal is to generate enough data for the kit to become an FDA-approved diagnostic tool. After all, he suggests, Google proved the power of data and -- combined with a hacker nation of citizen scientists determined to command their own (DNA) destiny -- anything is possible.

Startup
Learn more about Exogen Biotechnology at exogenbio.com.