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.
Last week, personal genetics company 23andMe announced that it had formally delivered the first round of documentation to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an attempt to receive 510(k) clearance for its consumer product.
23andMe declared itself “first in the [ direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing] industry to announce it is working towards FDA clearance.” That first followed another first for the company earlier in the summer: 23andMe’s first patent, which covers a method of predicting susceptibility to Parkinson’s Disease.
I sat down last week with The Burrill Report to discuss 23andMe’s recent activities and their implications for the future of DTC genetic testing and personalized medicine. You can listen to the complete podcast here.
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.
Updating the DTC Debate: Trial by Press Release, More FDA Letters, the Problem of Pleiotropy and New RUO Guidance
Later today I will join several colleagues here in Chicago, IL at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting for a panel discussion on Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing for Cancer: What Physicians Need to Know (pdf). (Daniel MacArthur and Misha Angrist will not be on the panel, although each joined us in authoring the pre-conference paper.)
This will, I believe, mark direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing’s formal debut at ASCO. It should also serve as another reminder that, despite its relatively small numbers (both in terms of dollars and customers), DTC genetic testing continues to exert an outsized influence when it comes to conversations about the future of genomic medicine. This is particularly true when the discussion turns to appropriate policy and regulatory oversight.
In advance of ASCO, here are several items of interest from the past few weeks in DTC genetic testing.
Last month, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association issued new diagnostic guidelines that divide Alzheimer’s disease into three distinct stages, reflecting recent evidence that the disease begins to affect the brain years before symptoms become evident. The expanded definition of Alzheimer’s includes two new phases of the disease:
(1) presymptomatic and (2) mildly symptomatic but pre-dementia, along with (3) dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. This reflects current thinking that Alzheimer’s begins creating distinct and measurable changes in the brains of affected people years, perhaps decades, before memory and thinking symptoms are noticeable.
At least for the moment, the new guidelines are intended to be used only with patients enrolled in clinical trials, making them more of a work in progress and not a standardized method of determining disease onset in Alzheimer’s patients.
Federal Alzheimer’s Activity. The revisions to the diagnostic guidelines – the first in nearly three decades – indicate how far scientists have come in understanding the disease and are reflected in new legislation introduced in both the Senate (S.738) and the House (H.R.1386) that would expand Medicare coverage of Alzheimer’s to cover “comprehensive Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and services,” including for individuals who fall under stage (1) or (2) of the new guidelines.
Social media – including Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms – are widely credited with fundamentally altering the nature of political discourse and, in some instances, credited as catalysts of political revolution. But social media’s ability to affect change need not be limited to politics, as recent developments in the arena of personalized medicine and consumer genomics continue to demonstrate.
Social Media as a Research Tool. Last month, PatientsLikeMe, an online patient community, made headlines with a study published in Nature Biotechnology in which the company analyzed self-reported data from nearly 600 patients to demonstrate that the use of lithium had no effect on the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The study’s findings are valuable for ALS patients, who frequently experiment with unproven treatments in an attempt to slow progression of the degenerative disease for which there is not yet an effective therapy. But the long-term impact of the study’s methodological approach, which suggests “that data reported by patients over the internet may be useful for accelerating clinical discovery and evaluating the effectiveness of drugs already in use,” should be felt far beyond the ALS community.
With so many developments at the intersection of genomics and the law, there are often a variety of interesting stories that, for one reason or another, don’t find their way into a full-length posting on the Genomics Law Report. Here we recap several recent key developments and, at bottom, round up all of the recent tweets from @genomicslawyer.
The Continuing Threat of Decreased Science Funding. At least for the moment, the two houses of Congress appear, finally, to be edging toward a budget compromise that would bridge the $51 billion gap between the House bill (which passed at the beginning of March) and the most recent Senate proposal. That’s a good thing, given that the current continuing resolution is set to expire on April 8.
Nevertheless, it seems increasingly clear that federal science funding is unlikely to increase from its fiscal year 2010 levels, and funding almost certainly will not meet the targets President Obama set in his FY 2012 budget proposal.
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.