23andMe "Spit Parties" Are So 2008! Real "Personal Genetics" Is Still to Come

Last Updated Mar 22, 2010 6:51 PM EDT

The New York Times had a story on Friday about consumers' slow embrace of personal genetics. Reporter Andrew Pollack noted that ever since 23andMe launched in 2007, the year when "spit parties" to discover your DNA became vogue, the recreational genetics company has acquired only 35,000 customers:
And at least a quarter of them got the service free or for only $25, instead of the hundreds of dollars on which the business model is based. Navigenics and DeCode have even fewer customers.
The low turnout suggests that many people have not yet embraced the genomics age -- despite efforts by the companies to present genetics in an understandable and even entertaining way. It does not help, either, that the services cost $300 to $2,000 and have been trying to catch on during a severe recession.
But the services face an even more fundamental problem: in most cases, the current level of DNA scanning technology and science is unable to offer meaningful predictions about the risk that a person will get a disease.
This is true not only because the technology is still in its infancy, but also because DNA is not destiny. Yet as the technology to interpret genetics improves, understanding DNA will still be vital to personal health because of the interplay of genetics and environment.

Last year, George Church, the head of Harvard's Personal Genome Project told me: "If we know enough about genetics then we will know how to change the environment so that there is no genetics. Genetics is not destiny, and in fact we are trying to change it from rarely being destiny to it never being destiny." Specific applications of this point of view include the use of gene therapy to fix mutations that cause genetic diseases.

Since scientists now agree that the key to the future of genetics lies in whole-genome sequencing, these so-called first generation recreational genetics companies will not be the real applications of personal genetics. Companies like 23andMe, Navigenics, DeCode, and Pathway Genomics have played an important role in building much needed awareness around personal genetics. They are also now adjusting to the times. For example, Pollack notes:
To make their tests more useful, the companies are adding more "actionable" information beyond disease risk. Both Pathway Genomics and 23andMe now test for genetic variations that determine whether certain medications, like the anti-clotting drugs Plavix and warfarin, will work for people or cause side effects. Navigenics is about to add that capability.
Pathway and 23andMe are also offering so-called carrier testing - to tell prospective parents if they harbor mutations that could result in their children developing inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs.
23andMe is also emphasizing another part of its service that tells people about their ancestry. A new feature proving popular with customers lets people find and then contact distant cousins by comparing their own genes with others in the company's database.
The company also hopes to make money from research based on its patient database, while vowing that customer privacy will be protected.
So while "spit parties" may be so two years ago, it's still too early to say that these companies represent an industry that has failed to live up to its promise. The real promise of personal genetics -- and therefore the winning businesses -- is still to come.

Photo Source: kristiewells