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Unwelcome in the UK, Sciona Moves its Consumer-Directed PGx Business to US

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On the consumer-market front, Genaissance partner Sciona closed an $8.2 million third-round of private-equity financing that it will put toward relocating its headquarters and developing and marketing its tests, the Boulder, Colo.-based nutrigenomics company said this week.

The company advises customers on diet, nutrition, and health by reviewing responses to a questionnaire and analyzing customers' 19-gene, 23-SNP profile, which are evaluated by its computer algorithm. Sciona raised the hackles of consumer and genetics watchdog groups in the United Kingdom two years ago. Positive focus-group research and customer enthusiasm "provided the impetus to move here," said Sciona CEO Jim Bruce.

GeneWatch UK and UK-based Consumer Association charged Sciona with providing misleading advice to customers of its You and Your Genes test, which was sold in several Body Shop outlets in the United Kingdom, according to quackwatch.org.

Pressure from the two organizations and the public convinced 13 large retailers to pull Sciona's products off their shelves, and Sciona later agreed to cease selling its products directly to consumers, according to a July 9, 2002 Financial Times article. Chris Martin, then Sciona CEO, told the Times that sales had been damaged by the campaign against the product. "In order to continue selling it directly, we would have needed to spend too much on PR to counter the negative publicity," he said. The UK Human Genetics Commission said in July 2002 Sciona's genetic testing service did not conform with its voluntary code of practice, but it did not prohibit the company from selling them.

Helen Wallace, deputy director of GeneWatch told Pharmacogenomics Reporter that Sciona had "basically lost the UK market and relocated to the US." The company was selling through one private doctor, but not in retail stores, she added.

A Sciona spokesperson said GeneWatch UK agreed to end its opposition to the company, once it was explained that the company "doesn't do genetic profiling or diagnostic testing." Wallace scoffed at the statement.

"We've sold [more than] 10,000 kits now," mostly through the direct-to-consumer marketing company Market America, said Bruce. The company's flagship kit, which tests for a number of different metabolic conditions, will be launched in an updated form as the Self Kit next spring, and sells for $200 to $350.

At least three tests focusing only on bone, heart, or other single health concerns will be launched in the third quarter, he said. These single-condition kits, which use only a few of the Self Kit's SNPs, will sell for $69 to $129, he added.

Although the tests are non-medical, Sciona sells them through a Market America-approved healthcare practitioner, such as a nutritionist, a pharmacist, or a doctor.

The funding Sciona received will support the company's move to Boulder, Colo., from the United Kingdom, as well as nutrition-related SNP validation, market testing, and a product rollout, said Bruce. "We have a dual approach. One is consumer products, and the other is R&D programs with some of the major nutritional programs," he said.

That research is directed at "helping [nutrition companies] segment their market" using genomic tools to identify individual consumer nutritional needs, and to help these companies develop more effective products, Bruce said. "When we look at [genetics, diet, and lifestyle related to] bone health, people who are producing … calcium supplements might be interested to know who needs that calcium and who doesn't," he said.

Ties between Genaissance and Sciona are fairly close. Sciona has an exclusive license to the company's HAP technology, Genaissance owns about 10 percent equity interest in Sciona, and Kevin Rakin, Genaissance CEO, sits on the company's board, he said. The US nutritional supplement market is worth about $50 million, said Rakin.

The privately owned company sends customer cheek swabs to Genaissance for microarray analysis, then integrates the information with customer questionnaire data to produce a report, said Bruce. Sciona plans to roll out and test its new version of the Self Kit in chain stores in Western and West Coast states, Bruce added.

— CW

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