So Doc, What’s My Genome Tell Ya?

2009-08-13 |

If you are a technology fan or a car buff, you’ve likely heard of the annual Consumer Electronics Shows and International Auto Shows that highlight the newest, coolest gadgets and sleek, powerful or “green” vehicles that companies want to try and sell to you. The companies are all competing for the best “Wow” factor and best reviews of their products to build consumer demand. A much less mature show, in its early stages, that has been televised, but you likely still not have heard of, is the Consumer Genetics Show. In this case, a number of companies are coming together to showcase their services for extracting the hidden information contained with your genes that could affect your health.

Though it was only the second annual show that happened in June, the very existence of such a conference points out the efforts taken by many companies and research organizations to revolutionize medicine by bringing personal genetic information to each of us. It also highlights the desire by these companies to create a market in selling us the information about ourselves. As researchers around the world extract more and more details regarding disease and health from our genes, the information that these service providers are able to offer will continue to increase.

Even now, online, some genetic testing companies are offering personal DNA testing. One of the first genetic tests available online was not for health purposes. The genetic testing companies offered DNA paternity testing kits to help ensure “dead-beat” dads paid their support payments. Mothers of children looking too much like the mailman could also be prevented from defrauding ex-boyfriends.

More recently, however, the genetics testing available online has become focused on providing individual health details. One company, called 23andMe, offered as of August, 2009, a saliva based genetic test capable of checking risk factors for 116 different diseases and genetic traits. This test costs $399 US dollars. Other companies like DNAdirect sell more focused genetic tests for $330 per test. At the far end of the cost spectrum, another company, Illumina, the maker of the equipment used by 23andMe, also announced in June that it would be offering full genetic sequencing for $48,000 dollars per person. Arguably, with that much information, any future genetic disease risks should be directly available from the information already gathered.

In related research and development, a Stanford Professor and cofounder of Helicos Biosciences announced very recently that he had sequenced his own genome with a team of 2 others for less than $50,000. The team used the sequencing equipment designed by Helicos and was able to identify one disease risk factor buried within the Professor’s own genetic details. Most of the cost savings were the result of advances in the genome sequencing equipment.

While most of us won’t likely be jumping at the chance to pay $50,000 to have every nook and cranny of our genome picked apart, the costs will inevitably come down to make the tests affordable. The first human genome sequencing ever performed in 2003 cost $500 million. As of 2006, the costs were down to $15 million. In 2008, it was $250,000, so within another 5 years, we will undoubtedly find access to full genetic testing much more common. With that sort of access to our own genetic information and the growing understanding of how each disease relates to our genes, we will likely experience a significant shift towards the medical use of this new found information .

Whether this genetics knowledge revolution ever translates to a booming consumer products and services industry or is left strictly in the unglamorous world of standardized lab testing remains to be seen. It’s hard to see the equivalent glamour of a new electric car or smartphone in the new services that divulge ones health risks. However, the effects on individual health and preventative disease management are likely to be quite profound.

How much would you pay to have your genome sequenced and your health risks revealed? Would you play the role of early adopter? Would you run for cover knowing that someone might use the information against you?

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