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The Conspiracy that Never Was

In a September editorial in Nature Biotechnology Ruslan Dorfman accused 23andMe of being part of a global conspiracy to monopolize the consumer genetics industry.

This month, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki fired back a response calling the editorial is "false and misleading" and took Nature Biotechnology to task for allowing someone to accuse a firm of criminal activity "without any proof or facts."

In his piece, Dorfman, CEO of Canada-based direct-to-consumer genomics firm Geneyouin, asserted that by cutting the price of its genotyping services down to $99 last year, 23andMe and test platform provider Illumina "have colluded to kill the remaining competition in DTC testing. This pricing war spans the globe and involves major genetic superpowers in the US, Iceland, and China."

Dorfman's reasoning backing up these claims is hard to follow, and he provides little in the way of evidence to back up his accusations. But in his web, the players include Life Technologies, BGI, and Illumina, and somehow they're all involved in 23andMe's grand design to be top dog of DTC genomics.

Life Technologies purchases Navigenics and takes out one 23andMe competitor. Illumina gets into a "bitter tug of war" with BGI over the acquisition of Complete Genomics. And then, around the time 23andMe lowered the price of its testing service, Amgen announces it is purchasing Decode Genetics and in the deal, retires another 23andMe competitor, DecodeMe.

That can't all just be coincidence, in Dorfman's view. "By setting the price point at $99, 23andMe has ceased to play fair with its remaining competition because $99 is clearly set below cost," he wrote in the editorial. "I believe that setting its service at this level is not intended as a move to drive consumer recruitment to help galvanize genetic association analyses discovery, but rather a cynical move to choke the remaining DTC competition." Geneyouin is also a potential competitor to 23andMe.

23andMe's Wojcicki didn't take Ruslan's "assertions and innuendo" lying down. "23andMe has never 'colluded' with any other company," she wrote in an editorial this month. "This offensive and baseless assertion, which forms the thesis of Dorfman’s letter, is simply false." Wojcicki also maintained that 23andMe could not have had prior knowledge of Amgen's decision to buy Decode, and dismissed Ruslan's suggestion that 23andMe is pricing its service below cost.

"Our decision to lower the price of our DNA kit from $299 to $99 was fundamental to giving more people access to our services and achieving a strategic goal of reaching one million customers, which we clearly stated in the press release we issued on December 11, 2012," she wrote. "Also clearly stated in the press release … is that the company would use the funding to '...expand the necessary infrastructure to support growth in its research and operational capabilities, including product development, genetic research, software development, recruitment and marketing.'"

Wojcicki also wags her finger at the peer-reviewed journal for publishing Dorfman's editorial in the first place. "Although he is free to express his opinion, he does not have the license to put forth what amounts to arrant mis-statements of fact under the guise of opinion," she wrote. "We are surprised that Nature Biotechnology allowed Dorfman to publicly accuse our company of serious criminal activity — without any proof or facts — under the guise of opinion."

Ruslan's web of collusion and conspiracy is further unraveled by 23andMe's recent decision to restrict DTC access to its health related content after it received a warning from the FDA's asking it to stop marketing its Personal Genome Service without the agency's clearance or approval. The firm announced last week that while 23andMe works to comply with FDA regulations, it will only maintain direct access to health-related reports for customers who received such data from the company before the warning letter dated Nov. 22. Customers who purchased kits from the firm on or after Nov. 22 will only receive direct access to their ancestry-related information and their raw genetic data.