2008 October

Server Issues

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 28, 2008 in DNA in General

Eye on DNA will be undergoing some server transitions within the next 48 hours week so don’t be alarmed if the site is offline for a little while. Thank you!

Update 2 Nov: Server migration complete and appears to be successful.

(1 comment)


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deCODE Genetics Sinking Low

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 20, 2008 in Business of DNA

Nasdaq and taxi by victoriapeckham.deCODE Genetics is still sinking after it laid off 15% of its workforce this past March. At the time, I was told that I misread CEO Kari Stefansson’s remarks on the potentially negative future of the personal genomics marketplace but now I wonder if I was on target after all.

According to Portfolio’s David Ewing Duncan, deCODE may have its stock delisted from the Nasdaq Stock Market if it can’t “raise its market cap over the $50 million minimum by October 30.” Recent negative publicity surrounding the launch of its breast cancer genetic test couldn’t have helped either. Duncan also says that other biotech companies may suffer if they can’t find more investors or credit. Some may even choose to sell out to Big Pharma.

Sounds bad.

With the global economic slowdown that could lead to a major recession, we are being warned to downsize our lifestyle and to downsize NOW before we lose our jobs, our homes, and who knows what else. As I’ve mentioned before, personal genomics companies rely on people having disposable income to spend on non-necessities.

Times are going to get rough and not just for deCODE.

Photo credit: Victoria Peckham

(3 comments)


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Bioethicist Arthur Caplan Says Corporate Greed Drives Genetic Testing Marketplace

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 15, 2008 in DNA Testing, DNA and Disease

price tag Fresh on the heels of the launch of the deCODE BreastCancer genetic test last week, Dr. Arthur Caplan, renowned director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, said in an article for MSNBC.com that breast cancer gene tests are not worth the price.

If you are worried about your risk of getting the disease, or are thinking about getting a genetic test done for any other reason, talk with your doctor or a genetic counselor who can determine whether your family history justifies the expense. You may be surprised to find that you can make changes in lifestyle and monitoring your own health that can reduce your risk without testing.

Dr. Caplan even goes so far as to accuse genetic testing companies of corporate greed which, given the current economic environment in the U.S., is bound to send shivers down their spine.

With respect to deCODE’s breast cancer genetic test, it examines seven single nucleotide polymorphisms* (SNPs) that are purportedly involved in 60 percent of all breast cancers. Results from the test are given as personal lifetime relatively risk compared to the general population (specifically people of European descent). Other risk factors such as family history, pregnancy history, etc. are not taken into consideration when calculating a deCODE BreastCancer genetic test taker’s risk.

deCODE’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Jeff Gulcher, responded to Dr. Caplan on its blog, deCODE You (a member of the DNA Network) and drew analogies between the BreastCancer genetic test and LDL-cholesterol tests. Anyone who is identified to be at higher risk of breast cancer (or in the analogy, high cholesterol leading to cardiovascular disease) would benefit from greater vigilance, more intensive screening, and possibly, preventive therapy.

Another DNA Network member, Dr. Steve Murphy at Gene Sherpas calls the deCODE BreastCancer test “hype.” Cancer Research UK also believes that “it’s too early for a test of this kind to be released to the general public.” Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society does not believe the test will “advance our cause in the fight to reduce deaths from cancer in a meaningful, evidence-based and scientifically accurate way.”

Speaking of cost, though,it seems that 23andMe customers get the better deal because all of the six of the seven SNPs (rs4415084 was on the v1 chip but not on the v2 chip) examined in the deCODE BreastCancer genetic test are included on version 2 of the 23andMe gene chip (I checked using SNPedia) not to mention the other nearly 600,000 SNPs included in the 23andMe report. A 23andMe DNA test costs $399 while a deCODE BreastCancer genetic test costs $1,625.

deCODE’s test offers other bits and fancy algorithms for calculating risk to justify the price. But customers should be aware that there is more than one way to get the genetic data they desire. And that data’s worth can be hard to price.

*See the list of SNPs in this sample report (pdf).

via Al’s Morning Meeting at Poynter Online

NB: I am a consultant to DNA Direct, a genetic testing company.

Photo Credit: abbyladybug

*Thanks to Mike Cariaso of SNPedia for clarifying what’s on the 23andMe chips.

(5 comments)


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Chromosome 20 Involved in Male Pattern Baldness

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 13, 2008 in DNA Testing, DNA and Disease

Evil doll by Helge CarlsenConsumers of genetic testing can now get more information on male pattern baldness from chromosome 20. A genetic test specific for hair loss is already on the market – HairDX. It examines CAG repeats in the androgen receptor gene (AR) on the X chromosome. According to Technology Review, in one study of 2,000 balding men and women, 1 in 7 Caucasian men had markers on both chromosome 20 and the X chromosome that increased their risk of baldness.

Lest you think baldness is a purely cosmetic concern, there is a link between male pattern baldness and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance. In 2000, the Physicians’ Health Study found that “vertex pattern baldness is a marker for increased risk of coronary heart disease events, especially among men with hypertension or high cholesterol levels.”

Interestingly, the HairDX website makes no mention of the link between hair loss and heart disease. Perhaps because they don’t want to run into trouble for making any innuendos about the medical utility of their DNA test. However, with this bit of information in mind, I’m less likely to make jokes at their expense.

Photo credit: Helge Carlsen

(5 comments)


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Smart Genetics Shuts Its Doors

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 6, 2008 in Business of DNA, DNA Testing

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing company, Smart Genetics, has gone out of business. The two-year-old company sold HIV Mirror and Alzheimer’s Mirror, DNA tests for HIV progression to AIDS and Alzheimer’s risk respectively.

I first wrote about HIVmirror in June 2007. Aimed at HIV+ individuals, the test analyzes the CCR5 Delta32 and CCR2-64I genetic variants previously shown to slow the progression of HIV infection to AIDS. Alzheimer’s Mirror examined the APOE gene.

CEO and co-founder Julian Awad first received funding for the company while at the Wharton School of Business. He was later profiled by CBS News for  Alzheimer’s Mirror and found that his own personal lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s disease is about 9 to 10 percent compared to 15% for the general population.

Ironically, he was also mentioned in a Wharton article from 2007 – Can Anyone Make Sense — or Money — Out of Personal DNA Testing?

Apparently not.

(3 comments)


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