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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 March 2008, 00:17 GMT
DNA testing firms eye consumers
By Lucy Hooker
Business reporter, BBC News

Amy Harman and her daughter
New Yorker has altered her diet following the test

New DNA testing companies are arriving on the market, offering greater insight into our genes than ever before.

But they may be able to offer more useful information to the pharmaceutical industry than they provide to their own customers.

First thing in the morning, New Yorker Amy Harman drops her young daughter with a childminder then takes a half hour bike ride around Central Park.

At her desk in the office of the New York Times she eats a bowl of oatmeal with a generous sprinkle of brown sugar and drinks a single cup of coffee.

Amy is more motivated than she used to be to keep up the healthy regime.

She's just found out she's at a higher than average risk of heart disease thanks to a scan which has analysed her entire DNA in search of abnormalities and risk factors for disease.

She's also found out more trivial information such as why her earwax is particularly sticky and that she metabolises caffeine badly.

'More anxious'

A new wave of tests has come onto the market in recent months offering whole genome scans for less than $1,000 (495), making them a viable consumer product for the first time.

Professor Steve Jones
By all means throw your money away. But you'd do better to eat a low fat diet
Steve Jones, University College London

"I hadn't thought of myself as a heart attack risk," says Amy.

"I'm fairly young and healthy and I exercise. Its made me more anxious but it has also made me more active."

Amy's genes were analysed for free in a trial for company 23andme which launched late last year.

She spat several times into a vial provided by the company and sent it off.

Within a few weeks she had been given a password to use on the company's website, the key to an encyclopaedia of knowledge about herself.

'Big scientific leap'

Enormous progress has been made by scientists in the last two years in identifying genes associated with common conditions such as cancer, obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.

23andme presentation
The DNA test firms can offer very specific advice

And the breakthroughs are in large part down to extremely powerful computer processors now at the disposal of genetic researchers.

Previous gene tests sold directly to the consumer have been dismissed by the medical establishment as meaningless and dangerous. But the new tests have won more credibility.

"Until 18 months ago the field was hopeless. Science made a big leap in the middle of last year," says Stuart Hogarth, a researcher at the University of Loughborough.

These tests, which build on our improved understanding of genetics and the faster computer processing, could he admits, help identify those at higher or lower risk.

California-based 23andme aren't the only ones getting in on the new market for comprehensive genetic testing.

Icelandic biotech firm DeCODEme, the company which first identified the gene associated with prostate cancer, launched its own service last November.

Navigenics, another Silicon Valley start-up, is about to launch its service in April.

But Stuart Hogarth says, as they won't get repeat business from their customers, its hard to see how companies like 23andme, deCODEme and Navigenics can make money, unless they market the information they collect to the drugs industry.


23andme, whose name refers to the number of chromosomes in human DNA, has no immediate cause for financial worries.

DeCODEme presentation
Each DNA test firm has very sleek presentations

It is backed by the powerful internet search company Google. Google co-founder Sergei Brin is married to one of the two women behind 23andme, Anne Wojcicki.

But the company admits it does plan to build a huge database of genetic information which can serve as an information bank for the drugs industry.

"We do feel there will be ways down the road to monetise this, with the premise we will never sell the data," says 23andme co-founder Linda Avey.

Linda posits a scenario where 23andme might invite its customers to get in touch if they'd like to take part in a medical trial relevant to them.

"We think the pharmaceutical companies may be willing to pay a fee to us for this permission-based access."

23andme also hopes an online forum will evolve, a kind of networking site based around your DNA, so that people with common genetic traits can exchange information. That could prove a lucrative too if it takes off.

As the science of genetic medicine progresses at exponential pace, masses of aggregated genetic data could be invaluable to the drugs industry, providing the opportunity to match genetic characteristics over wide population groups.

Lifestyle change

But still some observers doubt how useful it is to individual consumers.

Steve Jones, genetics professor at University College London is dismissive of even the new wave of tests.

"By all means throw your money away. But you'd do better to eat a low fat diet."

He says these tests may satisfy our curiosity, but they don't really tell you anything meaningful about our future health that you couldn't learn from your family history.

And they can make people either over-anxious or unduly complacent about their health, based on incomplete information.

Genetics is an area scientists admit they still only partially understand.

"The actual power of the individual gene to say anything about your own risk at the moment is actually very small," says Professor Jones.

"Although for a small minority of people genetic tests may be important, for most of us it makes far more sense to follow the advice of the health lobby - don't smoke, cut down drinking, eat a sensible diet - and to forget about the DNA."

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