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Personal genome services open for business

26 November 2007
Appeared in BioNews 435

Two rival companies have launched novel genetic services which, for a price tag of $1000 (£483), will allow people to have their genomes scanned, delivering them personal information about their ancestry, some personal disease risks and other inherited traits.

The first - called deCODEme - was launched by Icelandic company deCODE Genetics on 16 November. Customers send a cheek swab in the post from which DNA can be extracted and analysed for 'over one million variants in your genome', says the website. This is achieved by comparing the customer's genome with a database of thousand's of people's genomes in search for single letter changes - known as SNPs - which can act as signposts for disease risk or other inherited traits. Within 2-3 weeks customers can expect to have access to their personal genome profile via a password-protected online account.

The second - called 23andMe, a reference to the number of pairs of chromosomes in the human genome - was launched on 19 November by a start-up company based in California's Silicon Valley. Similarly, customers send a saliva sample in the post from which DNA can be extracted and analysed for 'nearly 60,000 datapoints on your genome', says the website. 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who is also a major funder of the venture.

Both websites emphasise that they are not medical-diagnostic services, instead marketing themselves as providers of genetic information. 23andMe even promotes the novelty of being able to 'connect with other 23andMe customers through sharing features', raising the prospect that a kind of gene-based social networking service might evolve, like MySpace or FaceBook.

Some critics have raised concerns over the potential value of a growing body of genetic information to a biotech or insurance company, particularly in light of the fact that 23andMe intends to share anonymised information with outside groups for the purpose of research.

While both companies have stressed that they take confidentiality very seriously, promising to accept customers anonymously if specified, there are further concerns that insurance companies might mount legal pressure on such companies in order to force information disclosure. 'Will they stoutly defend privacy if sued by insurers?' asks The Economist, also worried that any personal genetic information shared with doctors in the US could inadvertently make its way into the hands of insurers via medical records.

Although there are obvious benefits to be gained from the availability of personal genome services, there are also legitimate concerns that such services could cause unnecessary anxiety for some. 'I would think twice before spitting into that vial', says author Nicholas Carr, writing in the Guardian.

DNA testing comes for the masses
Reuters |  21 November 2007
Google gives new gene mapping service a bit of spit and polish
The Guardian |  22 November 2007
It's all about me
Australian Life Scientist |  23 November 2007
Personal genetics: Within spitting distance?
The Economist |  22 November 2007
26 September 2011 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
First, here is the bad news. Readers attracted by this title are in for a stormy and depressing journey. The writing, both in choice of language and sentence construction, is turgid. The problems of 'plain English' start in the six-page introduction, reach a low point in the ethical chapter and only improve slightly in the legal section...
30 November 2009 - by Dr Jay Stone 
Dr Kari Stefansson, founder of biopharmaceutical company deCODE genetics, has claimed that the company will be able to continue normal services despite announcing bankruptcy last week....
17 August 2009 - by Dr Will Fletcher 
Third-generation 'single-molecule' technology has been used for the first time to read a human genome sequence. Professor Stephen Quake, from Stanford University, California, US, is only the eighth person whose genome has been published since the first breakthroughs were made in 2000. When this latest generation of technology is perfected the hope is that it will bring us one step closer to ‘the $1,000 genome' that will open the door to personalised medical treatme...
16 February 2009 - by Adam Fletcher 
Jay Flatley, CEO of San Diego biotech company Illumina, has predicted that every baby will have its entire genome decoded at birth by the year 2019. Speaking to The Times newspaper last week, Flatley estimates that his company will be offering the service for as little as...
22 September 2008 - by MacKenna Roberts 
In addition to Google's corporate sponsorship of nearly 2 million pounds last year, Google co-founder Sergey Brin has taken his support of the genome-testing company 23andMe, which his wife co-founded, to new personal heights by becoming one of its customers. Last week Brin publicly posted on his...
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