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23andMe halts development of next-generation gene sequencing

31 October 2016

By Kulraj Singh Bhangra

Appeared in BioNews 875

Personal genomics company 23andMe has halted plans to develop next-generation sequencing technology, it has revealed.

For a fee of £149, 23andMe customers are given information about their health, ancestry and potential disease risks based on genetic testing of a saliva sample. In 2012, the company stated its intention to provide next-generation sequencing for its consumers. This modern sequencing technology would sequence DNA or entire genomes at very high resolution.

However, the company has concluded that next-generation sequencing would provide information that was either too complex, or too vague, for customers to understand.

'Without a doubt, we have our hands full,' co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, told BuzzFeed News. 'This is a whole new area. One of the things people are still figuring out with next-generation sequencing is – exactly what does all that information mean?'

'We spent a lot of time pursuing sequencing, and I think as we started to understand it better and better and understand the complexities, we decided to focus on our core business,' she added.

In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered 23andMe to stop marketing its DNA-testing service since it provides genetic information directly to consumers without medical consultation (see BioNews 733). But recently the FDA ruled that the start-up can provide health information – for example, warning about a genetic marker for cystic fibrosis.

The executive decision to halt next-generation sequencing is in contrast to the company's competitors such as Color Genomics, Helix and Veritas Genetics, who are beginning to build business strategy in this area.

'Next-generation sequencing is without a doubt the hot shiny object, but what you're going to do with all that information is an incredibly complicated area to get into,' said Wojcicki. 'If the results read something like you had a five percent chance of getting breast cancer, what would you do then? Need you do anything at all? It's a highly complex question, one that hasn't been made clear just yet.'

Ultimately, Wojcicki said that 23andMe is a direct-to-consumer product, and that means the results it provides need to be extremely clear. 'We want to give information to individuals where there's no ambiguity,' Wojcicki said. 'I don't see it as a setback at all. I see it as a company that really got to understand a new area and decided that we are going to focus and prioritise.'

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