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The CEO of Silicon Valley DNA testing startup 23andMe shares the health product she hopes to sell next

The CEO of Silicon Valley DNA testing startup 23andMe shares the health product she hopes to sell next

23andMe Co-Founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki

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23andMe Co-Founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki
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Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch
  • Anne Wojcicki, the CEO and founder of Silicon Valley’s most popular genetics testing startup, 23andMe, said this week that she hopes the company expands its current health offering lineup.
  • 23andMe, which made headlines recently on the heels of a new $300-million partnership with drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, currently offers health screenings for some of the genes involved in breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
  • On Tuesday, Wojcicki said she hopes to add a new health offering that looks at how you process medications including those for depression.
  • Albertsons pharmacies and gene testing startup Color Genomics currently offer that kind of test for $250-$750, but many scientists say it’s not worth the money.

Anne Wojcicki, the CEO and founder of popular Silicon Valley gene testing company 23andMe, doesn’t feel like the company is currently offering what she called a “complete product.”

That’s because the current gene testing kit – which includes health screenings for some of the genes involved in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and breast cancer – does not include a test that looks at how you process medications including those for depression.

Those DNA tests, which assess genes involved in the break down of antidepressants in the body, are currently being offered by psychiatrists and Albertsons pharmacists in three major cities at a hefty price tag of $750. Just last month, another Silicon Valley genetics testing startup called Color Genomics began offering the test as part of its $250 kits.

And on Tuesday at a conference organized by Rock Health, one of Silicon Valley’s premier health-tech funding groups, Wojcicki said she hoped her company could include that kind of test in its product lineup soon.

But many scientists feel the tests don’t offer a clear benefit to people and in some cases are not worth the money. Among other issues, the tests may give conflicting results to the same patient for the same medication and don’t tell providers which specific medication is best, according to experts.

‘When we can bring pharmacogenomics back, then we have a complete product back’

23andMe kit

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

In the early days of 23andMe, the company included a test for depression medications in its lineup of health offerings, Wojcicki said. But in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration forced the company to stop selling those products and get federal approval on the grounds that the tests could be misinterpreted as health advice. The company was allowed to continue selling the genealogy component of its kit, which looks at ancestry.

Last year, the FDA gave the company the green light to again sell some of its health screenings. On the heels of that decision, 23andMe rolled out a limited selection of some of its original products. The most recent addition, unveiled in March, is a test for some of the genes involved in the risk of developing breast cancer, also known as BRCA genes.

Now, the company is only missing one of those original health products, Wojcicki said: a test for depression medications, also called pharmacogenomics.

“The only one we don’t have back yet is pharmacogenomics. We used to have that and we’d like to have that one come back,” Wojcicki said on Tuesday at a panel discussion at the Rock Health Summit in San Francisco.

“When we can bring pharmacogenomics back, then we have a complete product back,” she said.

It remains to be seen how the company would roll out such a test. Because 23andMe sells its tests directly to people (they can be purchased online and at a selection of drug stores), it would need to get FDA approval before selling an additional health product. The test could be incorporated into the existing health lineup, which currently includes tests for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and breast cancer for $199, or it could be sold as a stand-alone test.

Color Genomics chose to incorporate its new pharmacogenomics product into its existing $250 test. Unlike 23andMe, which sells its services directly to consumers, Color requires people to order their tests through a medical provider. In addition, the company mandates talking with a professional genetics counselor and a clinical pharmacist to avoid potentially dangerous misinterpretations of the results.

Genomind and Assurex, the two companies who offer a standalone pharmacogenomics product, sell the test through psychiatrists and some pharmacists for $750.

Wojcicki did not provide further details on how much the test – should the company ultimately choose to offer it – would cost or when it would be available. A company representative also declined to offer Business Insider more information about the test. But Wojcicki said she saw the pharmacogenomics service as part of the company’s overall mission to help empower customers with more data about themselves and prevent negative health outcomes when possible.

“I think one thing genetics can do is help prevent a lot of early deaths,” Wojcicki said.

I’ve taken AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic genetics tests — here’s how to choose one to try

I’ve taken AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic genetics tests — here’s how to choose one to try

A spit sample for a DNA test.

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A spit sample for a DNA test.
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Hollis Johnson
  • I tried DNA tests from 23andMe, Ancestry, and National Geographic to learn about my family’s history and my health.
  • The tests vary in terms of what information they provide and how precise they are.
  • I’m often asked which test I’d recommend. My answer boils down to one question: What do you want to get out of the test?
  • From migration patterns, to how much DNA you have in common to a Neaderthal, here’s what you can learn from each report.

I’ve sent my spit off for more genetics tests than anyone else I know.

The tests analyzed the DNA in my saliva to find out a host of different things about my ancestry and health.

Genetic testing companies have proprietary sets of data and various ways of analyzing information, so each one I tried offered a distinct approach. One provided details about my great-grand relatives, while others listed how much Neanderthal DNA I have.

Every so often, someone asks me which test I recommend. And my answer boils down to one question: What do you want to get out of the test?

Let’s compare three direct-to-consumer tests: AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 test.

23andMe gave me a comprehensive picture of my health and ancestry that keeps growing

23andMe kit

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

23andMe currently offers two versions of its test: The $199 version comes with health and ancestry components, whereas the $99 version just has the ancestry test.

To analyze your DNA, 23andMe uses a technique called genotyping. Humans have 3 billion base pairs of DNA in our genome – that’s a lot of information to sift through – so genotyping technology looks for specific parts of DNA and pieces them together.

The health reports can tell you information about your physical traits (like if you’re likely to have dimples or curly hair), wellness (how well you metabolize caffeine or if you’re a sprinter), and carrier status for certain genetic mutations.

The FDA now allows 23andMe to provide reports on a person’s genetic risk for certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In total, the test now has more than 74 reports, and more get added all the time. I often get emails telling me that a new test is ready for me – recently I got one that looks at my genetic health risk for celiac disease.

With 23andMe’s ancestry reports, users have access to information about their ancestry composition (which geographic regions your genes align with), haplogroups (genetic populations that share a common ancestor), and Neanderthal ancestry. They also get access to something called a DNA Relatives tool, which 23andMe users can opt into to connect with other users and find out whether they have relatives in the system.

In February, 23andMe updated its ancestry reports to provide more specific regional information. My report used to specify just Scandinavian ancestry, but now specifies Norway as a country where my ancestors lived within the past 200 years. The company also maps out how many generations ago you may have had ancestors from a particular region. For example, I may have had a Finnish ancestor sometime in the mid-to-early 1800s or late 1700s, while my French and German ancestors date even earlier.

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23andMe

Verdict: If you’re looking at this test as a science experiment, using it as a way to get involved in research, or viewing it as a chance to learn about your genetic health risks, then this is a fit for you. (Though if you opt for the full test, there are some considerations patient groups and genetic counselors would like users to take into account.)

If you just want to know your ancestry percentages – especially now that they’re more exact – and how much Neanderthal variants you have, the $99 version is a good bet.

AncestryDNA connects the dots between you and your ancestors

AncestryDNA test box

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Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

Ancestry’s test, as its name suggests, is all about family histories and genealogy. You won’t find health and wellness reports in its $99 test, but you will find information about where your family comes from and how that lineage connects you to potential ancestors.

Like 23andMe, Ancestry uses genotyping technology to analyze your DNA. The service also helps you link up your DNA test to a self-reported family tree.

There’s a lot to discover within that data – for example, I was matched up with ancestors dating back to the 18th century, and could explore how I was connected to them.

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AncestryDNA

If you simply want to know, say, what percent Scandinavian you are, Ancestry’s site makes it easy to focus on those numbers. Those who want to dig deep into family trees can do that as well. I would definitely consider purchasing this test for a relative who enjoys researching family history.

Ancestry has also added a DNA story element that maps out your ancestors’ migration patterns. My ancestors started moving to the Midwest in the US around 1825-1850.

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AncestryDNA

Verdict: If the idea of tracing your family tree through the generations and connecting with distant relatives gets you excited – but you’re less interested in health information – this is the test for you.

National Geographic’s test uses next-generation sequencing technology to inform its reports

Helix DNA 1

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Hollis Johnson

National Geographic has an ancestry test called Geno 2.0.

The test – which currently costs $99.95 but originally was $199.95 – is different from AncestryDNA and 23andMe in that it uses next-generation sequencing instead of genotyping technology.

Unlike genotyping, which just looks for specific parts of DNA and pieces them together, next-generation sequencing looks at only the protein-encoding parts of your genome, called the exome. The next-generation sequencing analyzes roughly 2% of those 3 billion base pairs.

The additional information this technique picks up could lead to new, more specific genetic testing features in the future, especially as our knowledge of the genome and exome continues to grow.

Helix DNA 5

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Hollis Johnson

Based on next-generation sequencing, National Geographic’s test provides three ancestry reports.

  • Regional, which tells you where your ancestors came from more than 500 years ago. This didn’t get into as many specifics in my case as AncestryDNA and 23andMe’s tests did.
  • Deep, which shows your ancestors’ migration patterns thousands of years ago.
  • Hominin ancestry, which tells you how much DNA you have in common with a Neanderthal.

The verdict: For what you get, the test doesn’t have nearly the range that other ancestry tests have. And when not on sale, it’s more expensive. National Geographic, however, says the revenue funds nonprofit “conservation, exploration, research, and education” efforts.

Privacy considerations

Another aspect to take into account when deciding which DNA test to take is the issue of privacy. The tests do, after all, deal with information that’s fundamental and unique to every individual.

In a blog post published December 12, the FTC recommended reading the fine print. “If you’re thinking about buying an at-home DNA test kit, you owe it to yourself – and to family members who could be affected – to investigate the options thoroughly,” it says.

James Hazel, a post-doctoral research fellow at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, has been looking into the privacy policies of consumer genetics tests. He said the FTC’s suggestion is very important.

“We are good at clicking ‘agree’ and not reading the terms of service,” he told Business Insider in December.

Questions to keep in mind when reading through the terms of service include:

  • Who owns your DNA?
  • Who gets to see your de-identified (not attached to your name) information?
  • How is the data that’s tied to your identifiable information used?
  • Can you opt out of giving research partners your genetic data?
  • Can you wipe your information after taking a test?

There are other ancestry tests I have yet to try

The DNA-testing field is exploding. In the past few years, the number of people taking DNA tests has picked up pace. More than 12 million people have had their DNA sequenced, and almost 10 million of those tests have happened since 2016. With that, there’s likely a growing number of tests emerging that I haven’t had a chance to try.

MyHeritage has a DNA test that’s currently going for $49 (originally $99). Its tests, like Ancestry’s, are focused on building family connections and trees.

Others, like FamilyTree DNA (which offers tests from $59) are also geared toward people who want to find genetic links to relatives.

Each company has its own methods, algorithms, and data, which is why the reports differ. Because the three main direct-to-consumer genetics tests are around the same price, you should go with the one that will answer your most pressing questions.

This post was originally published in April 2017 and has been updated to reflect changes to the DNA tests.

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