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.
This morning, Gene By Gene, Ltd. – better known as the parent company of the popular genetic genealogy provider Family Tree DNA – formally announced a corporate reorganization that includes the debut of a new division, DNA DTC. (Apparently the news was also announced earlier this month at the Family Tree DNA Conference, although the company waited until today to launch press releases.)
The announcement from Gene By Gene is newsworthy for several reasons, including:
1. The Return of True DTC Whole Genome and Whole Exome Sequencing. According to DNA DTC, the company offers a range of products “utilizing next generation sequencing including the entire exome (at 80x coverage) and the whole genome.” The company’s website, while fairly spartan, appears to bear this out. Whole exomes ($695 at 80x coverage) and genomes ($5,495 at 30x coverage) are both listed as available products.
Now, Gene By Gene is not, as its Wikipedia page claims (as of this writing), “the first commercial company to offer whole genome sequencing tests.” Knome earned that honor more than four years ago, when it started selling whole genome sequences for $350,000; an astounding price, either low (given the cost of the first human genome was $3 billion) or high (given that, well, it was $350,000) depending on your perspective. Gene By Gene probably does represent, however, the only commercial company currently offering a whole genome sequence in a truly direct-to-consumer (DTC) manner.
Earlier this week 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based personal genomics company, was awarded its first patent: US Patent Number 8,187,811, entitled “Polymorphisms associated with Parkinson’s disease”.
23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki announced the issuance of the patent via a post on the company’s blog late Monday evening, attempting to strike a tenuous balance between her company’s oft-championed philosophical devotion to providing individuals with “unfettered access to their genomes” and its desire to commercialize the genomic information so many of those very same individuals have shared, free of charge, with 23andMe. With its new patent, 23andMe also injected itself into the middle of what Wojcicki herself described as the “hot debate” surrounding the patentability of “inventions related to genetics.” Wojcicki’s announcement appeared to catch more than a few of the company’s customers by surprise, sparking concern about the company’s intentions on 23andMe’s blog, Twitter and elsewhere, along with rapid and pointed commentaries from Stuart Hogarth and Madeleine Ball, among others.
Of the various questions asked of and about 23andMe and its new patent, these may be the three most common: Where did this patent come from, and why didn’t I hear about it before? What does 23andMe’s patent cover? How is 23andMe going to use its patent? Let’s take each question in turn.
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests are back on the FDA’s public radar screen. A month from today, the agency’s Molecular and Clinical Genetics Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee will meet to “discuss and make recommendations on scientific issues concerning [DTC] genetic tests that make medical claims.” Here is the Federal Register notice (pdf).
The two-day meeting, which is open to the public, will investigate the following topics:
- The risks and benefits of making clinical genetic tests available for “direct access by a consumer without the involvement of a clinician (i.e., without a prescription).”
- The different types of DTC or direct access tests (e.g., carrier screening, risk prediction in healthy persons, pharmacogenetics, etc.) that might “support differences in the regulatory approach.”
- The “level and type of scientific evidence appropriate for supporting [DTC] claims, including whether it should be different than” what is required for similar clinical genetic tests (presumably, non-DTC in vitro tests, including laboratory developed tests, or LDTs).
A complete agenda and list of speakers has yet to be published, but the fact that the FDA is singling out DTC genetic tests for specific attention is sure to be a welcome sign to many.
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.
[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: