Three weeks ago they were in stealth mode. Now the three players in nascent personal-genetics marketplace are ready to take orders.
But despite some obvious similarities between the firms — startups Navigenics, 23andMe, and genetics veteran DeCode Genetics each offers to assess an individual’s genome for disease risk and other traits — they differ in their history and marketing approach, and in how they view the fledgling field’s core technology, which happens to be arrays.
Navigenics, which is billing itself as the “responsible” personal genetics firm that is building genetic counseling centers across the US, launched its service Nov. 12 and became the first company to officially begin taking orders, though it will not actually begin delivering its $2,500 service until early next year.
Last week, it was Iceland’s DeCode Genetics’ turn to enter the market with its service, DeCodeMe. The company, founded in 1996, trumpeted its experience in genotyping large volumes of samples and professed a desire to bring the genetic discoveries of the past decade to “the man on the street.”
Finally, this week Mountain View, Calif.-based 23andMe officially launched its personal genotyping service with a slightly different approach — making genetics “fun” and “family friendly.” Both DeCode and 23andMe’s services are priced at just under $1,000.
A key factor distinguishing the companies is platform. Navigenics is using Affymetrix’s GeneChip SNP Array platform while 23andMe has been touting its close ties to Illumina. Both will use the vendor’s labs to process their customers’ samples as well. As for DeCode Genetics, founder and CEO Kari Stefansson said that the company is using a number of technologies including arrays and is wholly platform independent.
“We are using all kinds of technology with this,” Stefansson told BioArray News this week. “We don’t want to be dependent on one supplier of technology. Therefore we are not solely going to be dependent on one manufacturer because in the end when you have large volume the technology can vary.”
DeCode has used Illumina arrays in the past and the two companies have a diagnostic partnership based on Illumina’s digital microbead-based BeadXpress System. However, Stefansson declined to say whether DeCode is using Illumina’s technology in the DeCodeMe service.
Stefansson confirmed that arrays are one of the technologies DeCode is using but was unwilling to further discuss the technology. “That’s a matter of being able to negotiate with suppliers of technology,” he said. Once DeCode settles on one technology partner for its DeCodeMe service, Stefansson promised to make it public.
Beyond DeCode’s cautious approach to platform, another feature that distinguishes it from its competitors is its history. While Navigenics and 23andMe are both startups founded solely to commercialize consumer genomic testing, DeCode has been around for 10 years. Stefansson said that DeCode would add novel content to its service as its researchers discover it, giving it an edge over its rivals.
“Some of the genes that our competitors are using were discovered by us,” Stefansson said. “Some of the competitors give off the impression that all you have to do is put up a playful website to perform this kind of service. We will fold genetic discoveries into this service as they are made. We will put them into context with all these discoveries. We believe what we are doing is opening up our gates to have people have access to the information that they should have,” he added.
The company also sees its track record in handling data as an asset. “The difference between us and [our] competitors is that when it comes to genotyping large amounts of people it is not trivial matter,” he said. “We have genotyped thousands of people over the past 10 years. We have our own private encryption system. We come into this game not only with an idea and technology, we have come in with an unusually strong track record,” said Stefansson.
Stefansson said that DeCode was moved to enter the personal genetics space because the company wanted to make more “common people” aware of the genetic discoveries that have been made since DeCode’s inception, to encourage a general public interest in genetics, and to teach people how to use those studies to impact their personal health.
“Some of the competitors give off the impression that all you have to do is put up a playful website to perform this kind of service.”
“We have in many ways led the world in the study of genetics and common diseases and we have discovered a large number of disease genes and published in scientific journals,” Stefansson said. “We feel that there was a need arising among people in our society for a service to explain genetics to them and help to put them in context of new genetics,” he said. “I see this as an attempt to make these discoveries available to the common person, the man on the street, and to put them in the context of these discoveries,” he added.
From DeCode’s perspective, genetic testing could become a boon for the company, though Stefansson did not elaborate. Rather, he said that DeCodeMe is going to be a “major product” that will basically be the “twin sister” of current genetic tests. “There is a trend in the world to have more personal control over medical data. We are helping people to take that trend one step further.”
23andMe and Illumina
This week it was 23andMe’s turn to launch its service following the Navigenics and DeCode announcements. But unlike DeCode, 23andMe is touting its partnership with platform provider Illumina as a strategic advantage in the marketplace.
During a webcast announcing the launch of the service this week, 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey said that the firm feels very confident in Illumina’s array technology, and will outsource its genotyping services to the company rather than do the work in-house. An Illumina spokesperson this week said that 23andMe’s samples would be processed through Illumina’s Fast Track Genotyping Services business. 23andMe’s initial target will be the domestic US market before it opens its service to international customers. “We are getting a lot of requests from all across the world,” Avey said.
One thing that 23andMe’s service shares with DeCode’s is the ability to analyze family history. 23andMe offers “GrandTrees” — genome-wide comparisons of inherited traits across generations. During this week’s call, Avey said that the GrandTree “is an especially fun tool for cousins and other family members to use” because it would enable them to compare and contrast genetic traits.
DeCode is also offering ancestry- and genealogical-analysis tools on its website, and both Stefansson and Avey said that the websites could serve to better educate the public about genetics.
“One of the more fun sides to what we are doing here at 23andMe is that we realize that people that are using our tools may not have that much familiarity with genetics,” said Avey. “So we have created a genetics 101 section which gives you a fun way of learning genetics,” she said.
This approach is in contrast to Navigenics’, which is outsourcing its genotyping needs to Affymetrix. In an interview with BioArray News two weeks ago, Navigenics Chief Scientific Officer Dietrich Stephan that the company is taking a cautious approach to the market while issuing a jab at 23andMe and its self-described “fun” service.
“We are really into marketing responsibly,” he said. “This is medical information; it is not fun frivolous stuff,” said Stephan. “This is not a hyped-up product for fun” (see BAN 11/13/2007).
The extensive amount of counseling that Navigenics has pledged to provide could be the reason why its service carries the greater price tag. Rather than focus on family history, the company sees itself as assessing customers’ genomes for genetic risk and then helping them to alter their lifestyles to mitigate those risks.
In comparison, Stefansson said that DeCode would offer online genetic counseling through DeCodeMe’s website. 23andMe is not offering genetic counseling, and instead allows users to assess their risk through a “Gene Journal” where they can calculate genetic risk and read perspectives on certain genetic diseases from professionals.
Stephan could not be reached for further comment this week.