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Illumina Partners with Start-Up 23andMe to Enter Nascent 'Consumer Genotyping' Market

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While the current genotyping market is driven by association studies, and the emphasis is on big deals with large consortia characterizing thousands of samples, next year’s genotyping market may become as personal — and profitable — as genotyping can get, if Illumina’s predictions are accurate.
 
According to CEO Jay Flatley, the company has partnered with 23andMe, a privately held, early-stage personal genetics company based in Mountain View, Calif., to provide the start-up with the tools necessary for its testing services.
 
23andMe was founded last year and in May completed a round of Series A financing. Its co-founders worked previously at Affymetrix, Spotfire, and Applied Biosystems, and the firm has the stated goal of “empowering individuals to access, explore, share, and better understand their genetic information, making use of recent advances in DNA analysis technologies and proprietary web-based software tools.”
 
During Illumina’s second-quarter earnings call last month, Flatley told investors that Illumina and 23andMe are collaborating to deliver personal genetic testing services to the so-called “consumer genotyping” market, which Illumina sees as perhaps the largest opportunity for genotyping in the future.
 
“In addition to [our] traditional research and pharma customers, we believe consumer genotyping will ultimately be the largest market and is poised to become a significant opportunity in 2008,” Flatley said. “We have developed a collaboration with 23andMe to provide genotyping services for the consumer-based market,” he said.
 
When later asked by an analyst about the potential for consumer genotyping, Flatley replied that the firm believes it will be a growth driver, but that with products not yet even on the market, it is hard to estimate just how much the new front in genotyping could contribute to Illumina’s top line next year.
 
“We have often been asked over the past couple of years how big the genotyping market [will] be, and we have always said that the market is genotyping everybody,” he said. “We still believe that and I think that the advent of consumer genotyping is going to put some meat on those bones,” Flatley added.
 
Still, Flatley said that in “terms of visibility it’s still pretty speculative in terms of what the adoption rate might look like. There seems to be a huge amount of interest but it is awfully hard to put a forecast down until you are six months into it.”
 
Flatley predicted that in 2008, “We will have order information to tell what that market might look like, but our anticipation is that it is going to be a very large market and that it could be a large market very quickly,” he said.
 
Illumina this week declined to discuss its partnership with 23andMe in more detail beyond what was mentioned in the earnings call. Flatley told BioArray News in an e-mail this week that ‘one easy way to define consumer genotyping is by who pays and where the data goes. 
 
“If an individual submits their sample to be genotyped, signs the appropriate consents, pays for the work and gets the data, that is consumer genotyping,” he wrote.
 
Providing individuals with useful genetic information is not new. In a sense, nearly all bioarray diagnostics that have received US Food and Drug Administration clearance to date have provided clinicians with that kind of information, from Roche’s AmpliChip CYP450 assay for drug metabolism, to Osmetech’s cystic fibrosis carrier detection system.
 
What Illumina’s deal with 23andMe seems to be hinting at, though, is a higher-throughput screening service that will provide consumers — not physicians — with their personal genetic data.
 
According to Illumina, it has not yet determined what kind of genotyping capabilities it will provide to 23andMe. Whether the firm will supply 23andMe with an existing screening tool, like its Human 1M BeadArray, or a specially designed application, is up to the two firms to decide in coming months.
 
23andMe
 
For 23andMe, it seems, a lot has yet to be made public. That hasn’t stopped the company from receiving its fair share of public interest, though. The firm, founded in 2006 by Affymetrix alum Linda Avey and biotech entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, in May closed a round of Series A financing, which included investments from, among others, Genentech, Google, MDV-Mohr Davidow Ventures, and New Enterprise Associates.
 

“We have always said that the market is genotyping everybody.”

Terms of the financing were not disclosed, but Google disclosed in a subsequent filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission that it had bought a $3.9 million minority stake in the company.
 
According to its website, 23andMe is planning an official launch by the end of this year and will provide more information on the kinds of services it will offer at that time.
 
A spokesperson for 23andMe this week confirmed that the firm is working with Illumina. However, she declined to provide more details about the nature of the collaboration, or the kinds of services that might become available on Illumina’s genotyping platform.
 
As co-founder Anne Wojcicki said in a May press release, 23andMe seeks to “allow individuals to gain deeper insights into their ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits and, ultimately, the option to work together to advance the overall understanding of the human genome.” The firm said in the same press release that it company is being advised “by a group of renowned experts in the fields of human genetics, genomics, bio-ethics, and bioinformatics.”
 
Some of those contacts may come through co-founder Linda Avey’s previous jobs. Avey formerly held administrative positions at Affymetrix and served as associate director of alliance management at Affy spin-out Perlegen Life Sciences. Affy declined to comment on any relationship with 23andMe.
 
According to Avey’s biography on the 23andMe website, the high cost of whole-genome association studies led to the company’s “consumer genotyping” model.
 
“The advent of high density genome-wide scanning technologies brought huge potential for significant discoveries,” the site states. “However, the lack of sufficient funding to enable adequate studies prompted [Avey] to think of a new research model.”

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