DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomics Service Providers 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics

DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomics Service Providers 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted November 20, 2007 in DNA Products, DNA Testing

roseWhat’s so special about 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics? What makes them stand out of the crowd? After all, DNA testing is nothing new. The company I work for, DNA Direct, has been offering consumers a whole slate of different tests for several years complete with genetic counseling and informative reports.

What makes the latest entrants into the field of personal genomics interesting:

  1. Whole genome SNP analysis vs specific, single, limited number of gene variants
  2. Interactive, fun websites that are meant to be always up-to-date with the latest information and enable you to make contact with others who have similar genetic profiles
  3. A combination of genetic genealogy with human genetics
  4. 23andMe and deCODEme de-emphasize their involvement in medical genetics with deCODEme claiming that the information they give you is not meant to help you make “medical decisions.”
  5. Strong PR push which is especially important for companies that operate only on the Internet
  6. Investors with deep pockets

While I understand the excitement surrounding the launch of these companies (mainly engineered by the media), I don’t get why we should be any more excited by their offerings than by what’s already available on the market.

First of all, I’m not all that interested in what kind of gene causes my sticky ear wax because as Kathy Hudson, founder and director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center, pointed out, we’ve got q-tips for that. Info on the genes encoding my boring brown eyes can’t be all that interesting either.

Secondly, what am I supposed to do with the knowledge that certain SNPs in my genome are associated with an increased risk in complex diseases such as heart disease, etc.? Common sense tells me that everyone should be eating less fat and exercising more. That’s the commons sense part of prevention. As for treatment, if I needed it, my cholesterol and blood pressure, along with other biomarkers, would have given me away already. And, isn’t this kind of gene-disease information at the heart of nutrigenomic companies like Sciona and Suracell (for more info, see my interview with Suracell Chief Information Officer Derek Hornby) except that Sciona doesn’t sell nutritional supplements like Suracell?

Thirdly, if you’re an early adopter of whole genome scan technology, you should be aware that the data you get on your genealogy won’t be very different than other companies that offer genetic genealogy services at substantially lower prices ($1,000 for whole genome scan vs a couple hundred dollars for genealogy DNA testing alone). Also, the SNP approach employed by these companies may yield different results than the STR marker and mtDNA sequencing analyses used by others. In fact, if you’re looking to fill in your family tree/ancestry by making connections with other people of the same genetic profile, you may have to wait some time for the company database to accrue enough data from a sufficient number of customers. There are also many people who are interested in genetic genealogy but don’t want to know anything about genes that might predispose them to disease. DNA can be fun and scary.

On top of all this, remember that personal genomics doesn’t necessarily mean individualized genomics. DNA from you and other customers is analyzed using the same chip and the information you get is the same as any other customer with your SNP genotype and family history. As far as I can tell, there are no follow-up analyses beyond what the company offers on these microarray chips so if, for example, you have a SNP in the BRCA gene for breast and ovarian cancer that is linked to increase risk, you’re on your own in selecting which other genetic testing company or health service for further genetic testing.

the-dna-network-logoBut don’t just listen to me, DNA Network members are definitely the ones to turn to for commentary on the developing field of personal genomics.

Also, please welcome new DNA Network members Yann Klimentidis, Eric Olivares, and Deepak Singh. We now number 38 in the Network!

NB: Proving that The Issue is up-to-date on the issues of the day, The Genetic Revolution was the subject of discussion earlier this week with posts from Gene Sherpa, The Genetic Genealogist, Little Blue Pill, and Eye on DNA.

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Comment by Mr. Gunn Subscribed to comments via email

You know why there’s all the media hype…It’s because of the 23andme-Google connection. You could announce that Google was investing in a beetle dung collection service and 10 minutes late there would be 30 blogs chattering about how this changes everything.

It’s a good thing they’re doing, though, but I remain worried about the media blitz leading to unrealistic expectations…

Hey William, Nice to hear from you! I agree that Google marriage is an enticing angle…one which I have personally chosen not to follow up on because I don’t think it’s particularly relevant. If I were Anne, I would be irked over it, but I guess any publicity is good publicity! ;)

Speaking of unrealistic expectations, I’d be very curious to hear comments from the first set of customers. Guess we’ll have to watch the blogs closely!

Comment by Derek Subscribed to comments via email

Hi Hsien, the fact that these new companies are entering the market drives capital, attention and new ideas into genomics, which is probably a good thing overall, even if their business model seems a bit dubious in some ways (for example, I am not a big fan of being forced to give up rights and control of my own genetic data!) But you are correct in mentioning that the pioneers of personal genomics such as
DNADirect, Sciona and
Suracell never got the same recognition as
What we did get at Suracell was a lot of probing by the government. After close examination of our science, methods and business by the FDA, CMS, and various state regulators, we proved that we were conducting an open, ethical and worthwhile business (CMS was particularly helpful when it came to navigating the regulatory maze), and our company is definitely better off having gone through such a process.
Gene Sherpa
has raised some interesting issues about these new companies, and I would also expect Kathy Hudson to cast a somewhat critical eye on 23andme and Navigenics, to help balance out the breathless, head-over-heels press coverage so far.

Hi Derek, I’m glad you offered your perspectives here. I was afraid to breathe the word “nutrigenomics” knowing how some people scorn the field but I do think there are some similarities between the results offered by the “new gen” genome companies and the “old gen” DNA testing companies.

Great to hear Suracell is doing well. :)

Comment by Marty Nemko

I just wanted to thank you for your knowledgeable, measured response to the media frenzy.

Thank you, Marty! I take it you won’t be purchasing a genomewide scan anytime soon?

Comment by Barry Starr Subscribed to comments via email

Out of curiosity, how much overlap is there between the tests offered by DNA Direct and these other companies? Could I find out more than 1000 dollars worth of DNA Direct info from one of these tests?

That’s a good question, Barry. There are actually a number of differences between the SNP-based genomewide arrays performed by the new gen DNA testing companies vs DNA Direct. For example, the Myriad BRACAnalysis testing offered by DNA Direct varies in degree of thoroughness all the way up to full gene sequencing which companies like 23andMe are not offering. I’ve gone through the 20-odd conditions that are publicly known to be part of these companies’ analyses and for almost all of them, there are individual genetic tests available which, combined with genetic counseling, could end up being more informative for customers looking to make medical decisions.

Comment by Barry Starr Subscribed to comments via email

I was wondering how well the SNPs lined up with the specific SNPs that DNA Direct looks at. For example, your test looks at two or three changes in the hemochromatosis gene (I can’t remember which gene it is). Would these companies find these SNPs? Or SNPs that tend to associate with these particular ones?

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DNA Direct looks at 3 mutations in the hemochromatosis gene (HFE) – C282Y, H63D, and S65C. But would you believe that hemochromatosis isn’t on a publicly available list of medical conditions being examined by 23andMe and deCODEme?

I would guess, though, that because these SNP chips can look at more than half a million SNPs, most of the point mutations that have been identified are included. The question then becomes all about follow-up testing and care.

Comment by origins g Subscribed to comments via email

One point you make that resonates with me is that vntr’s and other repeat and copy# variation is much more interesting than snps and often linked to phenotypic variation. There is a whole universe of this variability out there in addition to the snps.

Absolutely, origins John ;) , we’re only at the beginning of probing our genome but this is a great start!


[...] one at “Personalized Genetics: It Has Officially Begun!” The second is at Eye onDNA, with “DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomics Service Providers 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics.” Hsien points out that many of the DNA Network blogs were cited in The Genetic Revolution at The [...]


[...] DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomics Service Providers 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics [...]


[...] DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomics Service Providers 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics – The latest developments in personal genomics, and what companies are offering. [...]

Comment by StevenMurphy MD Subscribed to comments via email

Great post and boy what a string of comments. I want to point out several things.

1. I imagine that the mutations in HFE (remember a SNP has to be present in 1% of the population)couldn’t legally be examined by 23andME.
2. Despite my beef with DNADirect, their service is a much more legitimate use of genetic technology. Especially because the samples are then destroyed after testing. A very important issue!
3. After further deliberation, Suracell is doing some great things. I just wish we could start using this in our offices. I think our counselors would rebuff a little.

Thanks Hsien,

Steve, I believe the allele frequencies for the 3 HFE mutations are high enough for them to be considered SNPs. For one reference with alelle freqs, see Milman et al

Don’t leave us hanging! Tell us what you think Suracell is doing that’s so great.

Comment by Derek Subscribed to comments via email

I think I should be the one promoting Suracell, but I would be embarrased to put promotional words onto a respectable science blog… so if you are truly interested in what we are up to, check out http://www.suracell.com and then ask me any questions you want by emailing me at dhornby@suracell.com

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Derek, Thanks for being so thoughtful! I don’t mind if you give me free content here. :D

Comment by Derek Subscribed to comments via email

Steve is right, we need to selfishly save some content for our own blogs ;-) … but Hsien, does anyone that reads your blog have any information or opinion about George Church’s venture, http://www.knome.com ? I read somewhere that they where charging $349,000 for their service, but I wasn’t aware they had even launched or made any pricing decisions yet.


Funny you should ask, Derek! I’ve got an interview coming up with the CEO of Knome. (Also speaking on the phone with him today.)

Comment by Barry Starr Subscribed to comments via email

I emailed the company about the service and they said they were interested in high net worth individuals (translation: quit wasting my time!). The price was 349,000 dollars and it came with some sort of consultation.

I hadn’t realized that this was Church’s company although given the awful name I might have guessed…


LOL Sadly, the price tag is about right but you never know. You could win the lottery tomorrow!

Knome is actually not George Church’s company but he’s an advisor. CEO interview coming up this week!

Comment by StevenMurphy MD Subscribed to comments via email

I shouldn’t plug it on your blog. I should probably cover what Suracell is now doing. As for the HFE stuff.Are you sure the 3 alleles are 1% pan ethnically. I have been digging it up, I just can’t find good data on Africans or Asians…..

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Steve, Just type [HFE SNPs] into Google and you’ll see that those mutations are considered SNPs. ;)


[...] Social network site eSnips introduced “Social DNA” this month (via TechCrunch): [...]


[...] DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomics Service Providers 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics (Eye on DNA): Hsien-Hsien Lei describes what makes the latest entrants into the field of personal genomics interesting. While I understand the excitement surrounding the launch of these companies (mainly engineered by the media), I don’t get why we should be any more excited by their offerings than by what’s already available on the market. [...]


[...] Over at Eye on DNA, Hsien has a very useful and neutral perspective on the new companies for people interested in these new “genome scans” and the companies that offer them. Her post also has comments worth checking out and will point you to the best DNA bloggers’ posts on the subject: DNA Network Members Discuss Personal Genomes Services [...]


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Comment by Tarun Gupta

Is it really worth identifying personal sequence variations while many confounding factors like environmental and dietary associations that may interfere in delineating disease susceptibility predictions, remain unknown. We still don’t understand the role and functional mechanism for each and every gene, nor do we understand the exact underlying molecular basis of each and every disease! And as you put it, common sense tells us that eating a lot of fat would give us cardiovascular complications even if we don’t have that spooky SNP!


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