Editor’s Note: This was first published at Genomes Unzipped and was co-authored by Daniel MacArthur and Luke Jostins. Genomes Unzipped received 12 free kits from Lumigenix for review purposes, and Dan Vorhaus has provided legal advice to the company. Genomes Unzipped plans to release a full review of the Lumigenix service in early July.
Last month three direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies opened their mailboxes to find a slightly ominous but entirely expected letter from the FDA. The three recipients (Lumigenix, American International Biotechnology Services and Precision Quality DNA) received substantively equivalent letters, with the FDA warning each company that its genetic testing service “appears to meet the definition of a device as that term is defined in section 201(h) of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act,” and that the agency would like to meet with company representatives “to discuss whether the service [they] are promoting requires review by FDA and what information [they] would need to submit in order for [their] product to be legally marketed.”
Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future provides coverage of the decision by direct-to-consumer (DTC) genomics service provider deCODEme to offer existing 23andMe customers the ability to upload their raw 23andMe data to the deCODEme service. For free.
MacArthur correctly notes that the value of the genome scans provided by companies such as 23andMe and deCODEme lies not in the actual creation of raw genetic data but in the interpretation of that data, and wonders why deCODEme has decided to give that away for free. Here’s MacArthur’s take:
So, why the free offer? I’m guessing deCODEme is gambling (quite reasonably) that offering free uploads will attract a non-trivial number of 23andMe customers over to deCODEme’s interface. That then provides the Icelanders with an opportunity to give people a fair trial of their own interface, and hopefully to impress them with the quality and accessibility of the data provided.
That seems reasonable, and many 23andMe customers are likely already familiar with porting their raw genetic data to other interpretive tools – Promethease, for example – so perhaps this puts deCODE in front of a group of individuals who would not otherwise be in the market for a duplicative genome scan. (23andMe appears unconcerned by the prospect of a side-by-side comparison of its service with that of deCODEme.)
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Earlier this week Peter Aldhous of NewScientist magazine recounted an unusual experience with DTC genomics provider Decode Genetics. In reviewing his genetic data on the deCODEme website, Aldhous uncovered what appeared to be significant and bizarre errors in his mitochondrial DNA. Aldhous turned to Blaine Bettinger, The Genetic Genealogist, for help in diagnosing the problem with his mitochondrial DNA. Bettinger’s response: “This is a strange question, but are you sure this is Homo sapiens?”
Aldous, Bettinger and Decode investigated the problem and ultimately determined that the “errors” in the mitochondrial DNA were actually being introduced by a bug in the deCODEme software interface that allows users to browse their data. (Aldhous carefully points out that the software glitch was a rare one and that it did not seem to affect deCODEme’s disease-risk summaries or analysis.)
More than a simple software error, Aldhous’s experience highlights the complexity inherent in consumer genomes. Translating an individual’s saliva sample into a description of genetically influenced traits and risks is a multi-stage process with potential for error at every step in the chain. Or, as Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future cleverly puts it, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt spit and SNP.”