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.”
Beginning this week, we are unveiling a new format for the Genomics Law Report’s regular Twitter Roundup. In addition to cataloging Dan’s @genomicslawyer tweets, we will also be offering short summaries of several key developments pulled from those tweets which, for one reason or another, did not find their way into a full-length post. Think of this as a combination between the always informative Friday Links posts at Genomes Unzipped and The Cross-Border Biotech Blog’s semi-regular feature “This Week in the Twitterverse,” which was the original inspiration for the GLR’s Twitter Roundup.
The movement to confer greater legal protection to individuals’ genetic information has added another participant. Last month, we examined newly introduced legislation in Massachusetts which, if passed, would create a “Genetic Bill of Rights,” significantly expanding Massachusetts residents’ personal property and privacy rights in their genetic information. Since then, in what the Council for Responsible Genetics has termed a “groundswell for genetic privacy building in states,” state legislators in both California and Vermont have introduced new legislation that would confer greater protection upon individuals’ genetic information.
What should we make of this three state “groundswell?” Although not identical in scope or substance to the Massachusetts Genetic Bill of Rights (“MA GBR”), both the Vermont and California proposals appear to reflect a concern (shared by the MA GBR) that, at least when it comes to the use and misuse of genetic information, the current system of federal oversight is inadequate. Then again, as the legislative findings section of the California proposal (pdf) puts it, perhaps “the current explosion in the science of genetics” simply “compels legislative action in this area.”
The big news buzzing through the world of genomics this afternoon is the publication of a paper in the journal Science announcing the production of three whole-genome sequences at an average materials cost of $4,400. The work was performed by the third-generation sequencing company Complete Genomics Incorporated, along with researchers from George Church’s lab at Harvard Medical School.
The Race for the $1,000 Genome
Complete’s $4,400 price tag doesn’t include costs for the company’s infrastructure, such as its Silicon Valley data farm and the army of analysts and technicians required to make sense of the data; the company lists more than 60 employees in this paper’s author list. The company is actually selling genomes at $20,000 apiece in minimum orders of five; costs go down as the order size increases. That puts it slightly behind the schedule it set at its launch; the $5,000 genomes won’t be available until next year.
The announcement from Complete Genomics is hardly unexpected. At its launch last fall the company promised that it would deliver $5,000 genomes (and 1,000 of them, not just 3) by the end of 2009.
From a personal genomics standpoint, there is no question that Complete is a viable contender in the race to deliver affordable, individual whole-genome sequences. Spurred by competition from the likes of IBM, Illumina, Pacific Biosciences, Oxford Nanopore and others, the $1,000 genome continues to draw closer. It is no longer a question of if but when that magic number will be attained.
But while the $1,000 genome competition makes for an exciting horserace, the real focus of today’s announcement should be not on how much a genome sequence costs, but on what you can (or cannot) do with that sequence.
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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.”