How is Color Genomics different from 23andMe

The billion dollar business with DNA tests is all about data

Are you still missing a Christmas present? How about a DNA test kit like the one that is being offered these days by startups and companies (Ancestry, 23andme, Dantelabs, Nebula Genomics) for around 60 to 150 euros and in some cases also advertised on social networks. This is not a serious purchase recommendation. But a reason to take a closer look at this topic - especially since a huge boom is forecast for this technology.

Annual growth 19 percent

According to a study, the global market was US $ 6.2 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach US $ 25.5 billion in 2025. This means annual growth of 19 percent will be recorded from 2018 to 2025. The interest in such tests is huge: the startup 23andme, founded in 2006, speaks of more than five million genetic tests carried out.

The test kits usually contain a tube that is filled with saliva and sent to the genetic engineering startup's laboratory. This is where the sequencing, i.e. the determination of the nucleotide sequence in a DNA molecule, takes place. From the results that the user receives after a few weeks or months, the ethnic origin and the disposition for genetic diseases can be read off.

Scientific knowledge

One of them has a certain entertainment value when genes of a previously unknown ethnic group surprisingly appear in the family tree. The other is knowledge about nutritional intolerance and the disposition for certain diseases - up to cancer and Alzheimer's. “Genome sequencing can provide profound medical knowledge. For example, to be able to determine in advance whether chemotherapy will be effective or not, ”says Eckhardt Weber, founder and managing director of the Berlin-based company builder Heartbeat Lab, which is invested in the US startup Nebula Genomics.

But caution is advised. Because the benefit is controversial among experts. Experts warn: "A test result is not a diagnosis", test results are not as accurate as the startups claim and consumer tests in particular have a "tendency to generate false positives," according to an article in Forbes magazine, which was written by Nicole Fisher. the president of the consulting firm Health & Human Rights Strategies.

Costs keep falling

The cost of such an examination has fallen from hundreds of millions of euros to between 500 and 2,000 euros in just a few years. Cheaper consumer tests remain on the surface of the technology and can be ordered for less than 100 euros.

One of the main problems is data protection. And that may be one reason why such tests are unpopular in Germany. Because every test generates gigabytes of data on the startups' servers, which not only provide information about themselves, but also indirectly about their own ancestors. Do you have to agree? This question remains unanswered.

A question of morality

"There are many discussions about the moral handling of unwanted information," says Eckhardt Weber as well. “More often than you would think, sequencing companies are faced with the question of how to react if a medical DNA check of several family members reveals that it is not the biological father. Is there an obligation to provide information or, if necessary, even a prohibition to provide information? ”Asks the expert. "The handling of data in cooperation with insurance companies is also a sensitive issue, but it applies to all digital health applications."

And what if the data falls into the wrong hands, be it through hacks or access by government agencies? It is enough if a test startup and its data sets are sold. Then the genome data sets are part of the deal and are in fact on the free market. Or when such a company enters into partnerships (like 23andme a year ago with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline as part of a $ 300 million funding). Part of the deal is the scientific use of the genetic data by group researchers. If that happens, the user has lost control of his data.

Great Britain is a pioneer

On the other hand, this treasure trove of data is of immeasurable importance for research. Some countries have recognized this and are developing genome databases. The British health authority NHS, for example, set itself the goal in 2012 of building a database with 100,000 genomes of people suffering from rare diseases and cancer. Last year, a program was launched together with four pharmaceutical companies that is supposed to analyze the genetic code of 500,000 anonymous volunteers. The biotech company Illumina (USA) has been commissioned with this.

There are also such demands for Germany, but politics is having a hard time with them. In a dossier on this topic by the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation, for example, it is said that Germany can only become competitive in this area if genome sequencing is introduced as a routine procedure for suspected genetic diseases. And in an article in the Ärzteblatt in 2019, it was criticized that Germany was unable to go beyond individual lighthouse projects. In it, scientists demand from the Ministry of Research a strategy in the interests of cancer and rare diseases.

Established structures as a brake

"As in the health sector in general, there are high structural and regulatory barriers to offering corresponding DNA sequencing products in the German market," says Eckhardt Weber. It is about the need for local analysis and the necessary investments in infrastructure. "These partly prevent the corresponding necessary price reduction." At the same time, the existing laboratories are well established. "These established structures are difficult to attack for new players in the market."

The Big Four (Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook) from Silicon Valley are also part of the game. Apple has now surprised everyone by offering a free DNA test to all of its employees in Silicon Valley. For this purpose, a partnership was concluded with the startup Color Genomics. As CNBC writes, employees in the company's health centers can have such tests prescribed and then discuss the results with doctors, such as the disposition for hereditary diseases or cancer risks. Since Apple cannot see the test results, according to the report, the offer speaks for the tech group's continued interest in the subject. Other companies would also offer their employees such tests as part of preventive healthcare.

It's about money and data

DNA sequencing is big business, perhaps one of the biggest in digital health. It's all about data. And companies like 23andme are in the top league and are even taking on Apple by calling on their users to donate health data in order to set up data networks themselves, like the Big Four are doing.

Nebula Genomics, the startup of human genomics pioneer George Church, is taking a different approach. Here the users should retain sovereignty over their genetic data. As with the competition, you pay a fee (currently $ 149) for sequencing, but you are rewarded for providing the data for research. Because, as a Harvard professor, Church knows the value of genetic data to scientists. One post mentions up to $ 10,000 for a particular record. As Techcrunch reports, users should also have the opportunity to sell their anonymized data via a blockchain.

At Nebula Genomics there is a permanent update of scientific findings in the in-house database (Nebula Explore Services), for example on individual genes and their interaction and influence on diseases. "We see a lot of potential here in the next few years," says Eckardt Weber from Heartbeat Labs.

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