This is not the first time genetic-testing company Orig3n has been scrutinized by state and federal investigators over its business practices

It’s not often that multiple employees of a clinical laboratory company go public with criticism about the quality of their lab company’s tests. But that is what is happening at Orig3n. Problems at the Boston-based genetic testing company were the subject of an investigative report published by Bloomberg Businessweek (Bloomberg).

In September, Bloomberg reported that 17 former Orig3n employees said the company’s Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) tests sometimes failed to deliver the intended results or were often contaminated or inaccurate. The individuals had been employed by the company as managers, lab technicians, software engineers, marketers, and salespeople between 2015 and 2018.

The former employees claimed that Orig3n “habitually cut corners, tampered with or fabricated results, and failed to meet basic scientific standards,” Bloomberg reported. The individuals also stated that advice intended to be personalized to individual consumers’ genetic profiles was often just generic information or advice that had no scientific basis.

According to Bloomberg, the individuals also alleged that Orig3n’s lab was careless in its handling of genetic samples in several ways, including:

  • Multiple samples being labeled with the same barcode;
  • DNA and blood samples for stem cell bank misplaced or mixed up;
  • No controls to ensure accuracy;
  • Handling methods that could lead to contamination; and
  • Fabricating results when a test outcome was unclear.

The former employees also stated that “Orig3n ran tests without proper authorization in its lab at the 49ers’ stadium, and that managers regularly compelled them to write positive reviews of Orig3n’s tests on Amazon.com and Google to offset waves of negative feedback,” Bloomberg reported.

“Accurate science didn’t seem to be a priority. Marketing was the priority,” said a former lab technician who spoke with Bloomberg on the condition of anonymity. Orig3n denied the accusations in a statement, describing them as “grossly inaccurate,” and claimed the former employees were simply disgruntled.

“In some cases, former employees are former employees for a reason,” Orig3n Chief Executive Officer Robin Smith told Bloomberg. “We’ve found after employees are gone that they have not done things appropriately.”

Jessica Stoll, MS, CGC (above), a certified genetic counselor and Associate Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic at the University of Chicago Medicine, told NBC, “The majority of genetic testing is still a gray area and there’s always the possibility of uncertain results. I don’t find them particularly useful, and in some cases I can actually find them harmful.” (Photo copyright: Cancer Wellness Center.)

Is it Dog or Human DNA?

In 2018, NBC Chicago (NBC) conducted an investigation into various consumer DNA testing kits. NBC sent DNA samples to several different testing companies. This included non-human samples, which NBC’s investigators had obtained from a female Labrador Retriever.

With the exception of Orig3n, all of companies identified the DNA as non-human and did not process the kits. Orig3n did, however, process the canine DNA. It then returned a seven-page analysis that suggested the subject of the sample “would probably be great for quick movements like boxing and basketball, and that she has the cardiac output for long endurance bike rides or runs,” NBC reported.

This would be funny if it weren’t so concerning.

Following reports that it had processed dog DNA, Orig3n stated it had made changes and improvements to the company’s testing methodologies. Smith also stated Orig3n’s lab protocols had been improved as well.

“Sometimes we look at the accuracy of things and go, ‘Man, that’s not working,’” Smith told Bloomberg. “Our approach and our philosophy is [sic] to constantly improve the products.” 

Serious Accusations of Clinical Laboratory Malfeasance

Founded in 2014 with the intent of creating the world’s largest stem cell bank, by 2016, Boston-based Orig3n had refocused its attention on the burgeoning field of direct-to-consumer DNA testing. On its website, Orig3n sells several DNA-testing kits with varying costs.

Orig3n’s attempt to offer free genetic tests to large numbers of people at a professional sporting event in the fall of 2017 may be what caught the attention of federal investigators and led to a deeper investigation. Dark Daily previously covered this controversy, which centered around Orig3n’s plan to distribute free genetic testing kits to fans at a Baltimore Ravens football game.

In that situation, state and federal healthcare regulators blocked the giveaway over concerns about protected health information (PHI). Now, Orig3n is being accused of questionable business practices by 17 of its former employees. 

The former employees’ statements that the company’s genetic testing lab did not follow appropriate test protocols—and that it allegedly mishandled specimens and even reported false test results—are serious allegation of malfeasance and warrants an investigation.

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers know that patient harm can potentially result from inaccurate genetic test results if used for clinical purposes. Dark Daily will continue to follow the investigation into Orig3n.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

DNA Company Tampered with Results, Former Employees Say

Home DNA Kits: What Do They Tell You?

Orig3n Holds Inaugural Ravens DNA Day on September 17 at M and T Bank Stadium to Kick Off the Season

Orig3n Partners with San Francisco 49ers to Reward Fans for Contributions to Advancing the Future of Medicine through Genetics and Regenerative Medicine Research

State and Federal Agencies Throw Yellow Flag Delaying Free Genetic Tests at NFL Games in Baltimore—Are Clinical Laboratories on Notice about Free Testing?