A day after Amgen purchased deCODE Genetics for a whopping $415M, in part for access to its unique data (as described in yesterday’s post), 23andMe announced today it had raised $50M in new financing as part of a concerted effort to grow its genetic database to one million customers.
Both events underscore the increasing importance of data to the business of personalized medicine. In addition, today’s news suggests that 23andMe’s efforts to refocus the company to maximize its most valuable asset – “an engaged, enthusiastic and growing community of customers-qua-research-participants” who supply the raw genetic, phenotypic and other material for 23andMe’s expanding database – continue apace.
Either way, in securing another massive round of financing and lowering its price to $99, the last company standing of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing pioneers appears unlikely to be joining deCODE, Navigenics and others in abandoning its consumer-facing approach any time soon.
The big biotech news of the day is the $415 million sale of deCODE Genetics to Amgen. Coverage of the deal is everywhere, including a typically excellent overview from Matthew Herper of Forbes.
We’ve written extensively about deCODE here at the Genomics Law Report over the years, including the company’s well-publicized bankruptcy and privatization two years ago. That transaction left plenty of deCODE shareholders out in the cold, and those shareholders aren’t likely to be feeling any better about things this winter.
Two years ago, questions were raised regarding how the newly private deCODE would utilize one of its most noteworthy assets: it’s database of genetic and other personal health information about Icelandic citizens. Those questions are likely to resurface now, as Amgen seeks to extract $415 million worth of a company that it bought – at least according to one of deCODE’s owners – in large part for access to deCODE’s data. Expect the usual assurances, but remember that those assurances are only as strong as the paper – and legal framework – upon which they are premised.
The FDA’s public meeting on the future of clinical direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing (which we have covered here, here and here) is continuing to draw significant attention from the media and other commentators. Most of the coverage, especially over the past 7-10 days, has added little that is new in the way of either reporting or analysis. One exception, however, comes from Robert VerBruggen of National Review in his column on “The FDA’s Genetic Paternalism.”
What’s new and interesting here is not the substance of VerBruggen’s analysis. Whether or not you agree with Verbruggen’s particular formulation, the “paternalism” critique of proposed FDA regulation of DTC genetic testing is not new. What caught our eye is a comment from deCODE genetics’ CEO Kári Stefánsson. When questioned by VerBruggen about his company’s marketing of its DTC genetic test offering, deCODEme (see screenshot) – which includes statements such as “your genes are a road-map to better health” – here is how Stefánsson responded:
“I think that is both cheesy and somewhat incorrect. I don’t know who came up with that, but whoever it is, is going to be duly punished,” [Stefánsson] said. “I think it’s safe to say we’ll probably be removing that statement and putting up something that at least sounds better.”
After its well-publicized 2009 bankruptcy, deCODE emerged in 2010 as a privately-held company and so it is unlikely the public will know whether Stefánsson follows through with his promise to “duly punish” the source of the “road-map” statement. On the other hand, whether and how deCODE follows through with Stefánsson’s not-quite-a-promise to change deCODEme’s marketing and claims is something that will happen in full view of the public.
Last January we kicked off the new year by posing “Five Questions for Personal Genomics in 2010.” Here were the five questions we asked:
1. Will the $1,000 genome live up to the hype?
2. Will personal genomics stay DTC?
3. How will the ongoing gene patent debate affect the progress of personalized medicine?
4. When and where will the next regulatory shoe fall?
5. Who will control the data?
A year later the question that comes first to mind is, has anything really changed?
The short answer is no, not fundamentally, although that is not meant to imply that nothing of note happened in 2010. Far from it, as significant legal, regulatory, policy and technological developments continued to reshape the personal genomics landscape.
With that in mind, we welcome 2011 with a look back at the year that was, and a look ahead at what to expect from 2011 and beyond.
The top news story the past two weeks: the release of hundreds of thousands of confidential American diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. While dissecting diplomatic maneuvering is not a traditional area of expertise for the Genomics Law Report, a pair of cables did catch our eye.
The first is primarily a curiosity: the allegation that Chinese authorities are spying on deCode Genetics, Iceland’s most prominent genetic research company and provider of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing service, deCODEme. Nobody seems to know exactly what China is looking to gain by clandestinely exploring Iceland’s genetic genealogy. You are welcome to speculate in the comments.
The second raises broader issues: the revelation that the State Department’s ongoing human intelligence collection directives include requests for “biometric information” on key world leaders, including United Nations arms inspectors, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) and key advisors and aides to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A separate cable detailing intelligence collection priorities in Africa’s Great Lakes region clarifies that “biometric information” includes “health [data]…fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.”
Not disclosed in the WikiLeaked cables: why the State Department wants the biometric data or whether any have been successfully obtained.
Surreptitious Testing: An Overview. The cables are, however, a reminder that the law surrounding the surreptitious collection and testing of biometric data, including DNA, remains extremely murky.
[Editor’s Note: Newsweek science editor Mary Carmichael has a DNA Dilemma. As Carmichael debates whether to take a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test, she is soliciting feedback from the DTC community, from the public and from other commentators, including myself. At the end of the week, she will make her decision.
On Tuesday, Carmichael and five commentators examined what can be learned from a DTC genetic test. Yesterday, the topic was whether DTC genetic tests are trustworthy, and whether the results can be cause for concern. Today’s topic is the regulation of DTC genetic tests. In addition to several short commentaries, including a much shorter version of the piece below, Carmichael has also posted a lengthy interview with two top FDA officials on the subject of DTC genetic testing regulation.
The column below is an expanded version of what appears over at Newsweek. To see all of the commentaries in Carmichael’s series, click here.]
The recent media attention focused on direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests has left companies, investors, consumers and even regulators scrambling to figure out what comes next.
As the situation stands today, companies and their investors live in a climate of unprecedented regulatory uncertainty, causing delays in the introduction of new products and rendering an already inhospitable economic climate – for both fundraising and sales – even more challenging. Commentators and regulators caution consumers that some DTC genetic tests may be unreliable or, worse, harmful, but have yet to provide clear tools and guidelines for evaluating competing tests. And regulators, including the FDA, must balance their mandate to protect the health and safety of the public with that same public’s desire for autonomy, while also recognizing that innovation is a prerequisite for a healthcare system that must continue to improve outcomes while reducing costs.
Clearly, something must change. But what will that change be? And how will the field of DTC genetic testing evolve? Will DTC be able to continue its current business while regulators and companies engage in protracted negotiations? Will oversight weed out the “snake oil salesmen” and permit legitimate companies to flourish? Will it drive all genetic testing (temporarily) out of the hands of consumers?
Or will the field change in a dramatic and completely unexpected way?
It has been a busy week in Washington for direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies. Following public FDA meetings and a new round of FDA device notification letters earlier in the week, representatives from three major DTC genetic testing companies (23andMe, Navigenics and Pathway Genomics) were hauled in front of Congress today to defend their companies, their industry and the practice of DTC genetic testing.
The hearing on “Direct-To-Consumer Genetic Testing and the Consequences to Public Health” was conducted by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The meeting was chaired by Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan. Materials from the hearing, including a briefing memorandum, opening statements from Stupak and Representative Henry Waxman of California and witness testimony are available on the Committee’s website. Also available are materials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into DTC genetic tests. These materials include the report the GAO submitted to Congress – “Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Tests: Misleading Test Results Are Further Complicated by Deceptive Marketing and Other Questionable Practices” (pdf) – as well as a YouTube video featuring excerpts from undercover phone calls made by the GAO to DTC companies as part of their investigation (both of which are discussed in detail below).
Earlier this week the FDA held a widely publicized two-day public meeting to discuss its planned regulation of laboratory developed tests (LDTs) (for more see: Day One Recap and Day Two Recap). Other than Monday morning, when the FDA presented background information on LDTs and some of the considerations that have pushed the Agency to pursue a “risk-based application of oversight to LDTs,” the top Agency officials at the meeting were conspicuously quiet. Elsewhere, however, the FDA was doing plenty of talking.
In letters dated July 19th, the first day of the FDA’s public LDT meeting, the Agency continued its crackdown on direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test providers, mailing letters to 14 providers of genetic tests. A list of all 14 companies and tests appears below.
The second and final day of the FDA’s “Public Meeting on Oversight of Laboratory Developed Tests” (LDTs) brought forth many of the same comments and themes as the first. The primary difference was that, whereas the first day began with some comments from the Agency that provided a few hints about what the FDA has in store for LDTs, the second day was notable for the FDA’s near-total silence (although key officials were present and listening). Indeed, perhaps the loudest applause of the day was reserved for Sharon Terry of Genetic Alliance, who remarked that while she was glad the FDA had invited so many comments, “it would be nice [if the Agency] would say something back.”
Something Old, Something New. In addition to a reiteration of yesterday’s themes – especially the need for additional data demonstrating how LDTs are used and what harms, if any, they have inflicted on consumers and patients – a few new areas of discussion emerged over the course of the day. Those included:
The FDA has published online letters sent to five personal genomics companies – 23andMe, Navigenics, deCODE Genetics, Knome and Illumina – informing the companies that they are manufacturing and selling medical devices without appropriate FDA premarket review and approval. No surprise that the news that the FDA has sent out letters to some of the most well-known providers of DTC genetic testing products is already making waves. (Daniel MacArthur was the first to point me to the AP story, and Mary Carmichael of Newsweek and Andrew Pollack of The New York Times were among the first to dive into the substance of the letters.)
Below, we will discuss the immediate and long-term implications of the FDA’s most recent regulatory actions for the five companies receiving letters, as well as for the DTC genetic testing industry. First, however, a review of the letters themselves is required. Each of the five two-page letters is signed by Alberto Gutierrez, Director of the FDA’s Office of In Vitro Diagnostic Device Evaluation and Safety (OIVD), and follows a similar format throughout. To gauge the impact of these letters we will take them paragraph by paragraph.