23andMe executives say they plan to leverage their database of millions of customer genotypes ‘tohelp accelerate personalized healthcare at scale,’ a key goal of precision medicine
In what some financial analysts believe may be an indication that popularity of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing among customers who seek info on their ethnic background and genetic predisposition to disease is waning, personal genomics/biotechnology company 23andMe announced it has completed its merger with Richard Branson’s VG Acquisition Corp. (NYSE:VGAC) and is now publicly traded on NASDAQ.
According to a 23andMe news release, “The combined company is called 23andMe Holding Co. and will be traded on The Nasdaq Global Select Market (“NASDAQ”) beginning on June 17, 2021, under the new ticker symbol ‘ME’ for its Class A Common shares and ‘MEUSW’ for its public warrants.”
Now that it will file quarterly earnings reports, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will have the opportunity to learn more about how 23andMe serves the consumer market for genetic types and how it is generating revenue from its huge database containing the genetic sequences from millions of people.
After raising $600 million and being valued at $3.5 billion, CNBC reported that 23andMe’s shares rose by 21% during its first day of trading.
Might the quick rise in its stock price be a sign that 23andMe—with its database of millions of human genotypes—has found a lucrative path forward in drug discovery?
23andMe says that 80% of its 10.7 million genotyped customers have consented to sharing their data for research, MedCity News reported, adding that, “The long-term focus for 23andMe still remains using all of its accumulated DNA data to strike partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.”
Time for a New Direction at 23andMe
While 23andMe’s merger is a recent development, it is not a surprising direction for the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, which launched in 2006, to go.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, both 23andMe and its direct competitor Ancestry had experienced a decline in direct-to-consumer testing sales of at-home DNA and genealogy test kit orders. This decline only accelerated during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, 23andMe Therapeutics, a division focused on research and drug development, has been on the rise, Bloomberg News reported. On its website, 23andMe said it has ongoing studies in oncology, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases.
“It’s kind of an ideal time for us,” Wojcicki told Bloomberg News.
“As an early investor, I have seen 23andMe develop into a company with enormous growth potential. Driven by Anne’s vision to empower consumers, and with our support, I’m excited to see 23andMe make a positive difference to many more people’s lives,” he added.
Report Bullish on Consumer Genetic Testing
Despite the apparent saturation of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing market, and consumers’ concerns about privacy, Infiniti Research reported that worldwide sales of DTC tests “are poised to grow by $1.39 bn during 2021-2025, progressing at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of over 16% during the forecast period.”
“This study identifies the advances in next-generation genetic sequencing as one of the prime reasons driving the direct-to-consumer genetic testing market growth during the next few years. Also, reduction in the cost of services and growing adoption of online service platforms will lead to sizable demand in the market,” the report states.
Clinical laboratory leaders will want to stay abreast of 23andMe rise as a publicly-traded company. It will be interesting to see if Wojcicki’s vision about moving therapies into clinics in five years comes to fruition.
As consumer demand increases for medical laboratory testing services that bypass the supervision of primary care doctors, clinical laboratories may be affected
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing organizations and telecommunications companies in South Korea are collaborating to help consumers stay informed of their health status by sending lab test results directly to their mobile devices without requiring physician involvement. What can labs in the West learn from these developments?
Founded in 2015, NGeneBio provides smartphone-based healthcare services for individuals who solicit genetic testing. Through the partnership, KT plans to combine its knowledge of artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing with NGeneBio’s genetic decoding expertise to “provide services such as tailored health management (diet and exercise therapy) services, and storage and management of personal genome analysis information.”
No Doctors Involved?
Outside of genealogy, the general intent of DTC genetic testing is to equip consumers with certain genetic data that may help them manage their healthcare without requiring visits to their healthcare provider. The healthcare information provided through the NGeneBio venture will include data delivered directly to customers’ smartphones on the status of their:
According to an article in Korean business news publication Pulse, “Genetic test services in Korea are restricted to some 70 categories, such as the analysis of the risk of hair loss, high blood pressure, and obesity.”
Last September, Pulse reported, Korean mobile carrier SK Telecom Co. announced a similar partnership with Macrogen Inc. to introduce a mobile app-based DNA testing service called “Care8 DNA.” To utilize this service, consumers order a DNA test kit, take a saliva sample via mouth swab, and then send the kit to a clinical laboratory for analysis. Users typically receive their test results on the Care8 DNA app (available from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store) within a few weeks.
The service costs ₩8,250 South Korean won ($7.36 US) per month. A one-year subscription to the service costs ₩99,000 won or $88.36 US. The Care8 DNA app features 29 testing services, including:
possibility of hair loss,
resistance to nicotine,
the body’s recovery speed after exercise,
Along with those results, consumers can receive personalized health coaching guidance from professionals like nutritionists and exercise physiologists to improve their overall wellbeing, Pulse noted.
In February 2019, Macrogen became the first company in South Korea to take advantage of the government’s relaxed regulations on DTC genetic testing, Korea Biomedical Review reported. In addition to the basic services offered through the Care8 DNA app, Macrogen’s DTC tests also can cover 13 diseases, including:
“A DTC genetic test is a contactless healthcare service suitable for the COVID-19 era. The expansion of detailed test items allows users to comprehensively check nutrients, obesity, skin, hair, eating habits, and exercise characteristics at one time,” an official at Theragen Bio told Korea Biomedical Review. “We expect that our service will attract more attention from consumers.”
What Can Be Learned?
Countries in Asia—particularly South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—are among the fastest adopters of new technology in the world. Thus, it can be instructive to see how their consumers use healthcare differently than in the West, and how those users embrace new technologies to help them manage their health.
It is not certain how all this will impact clinical laboratories and genetic doctors in the western nations. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing has had its ups and downs, as Dark Daily reported in multiple e-briefings.
Nevertheless, these developments are worth watching. Worldwide consumer demand for genetic home testing, price transparency, and easy access to test results on mobile devices is increasing rapidly.
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
According to Bloomberg, the individuals also alleged
that Orig3n’s lab was careless in its handling of genetic samples in several
Multiple samples being labeled with the same
DNA and blood samples for stem cell bank
misplaced or mixed up;
No controls to ensure accuracy;
Handling methods that could lead to
Fabricating results when a test outcome was
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
“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.”
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
“There is no more comprehensive genetic test than your whole genome,” Rodrigo Martinez, Veritas’ Chief Marketing and Design Officer, told CNBC. “So, this is a clear signal that the whole genome is basically going to replace all other genetic tests. And this [price drop] gets it closer and closer and closer.”
Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will want to watch to see if Veritas’ low-priced, $599 whole-genome sequencing becomes a pricing standard for the genetic testing industry. Meanwhile, the new price includes not only the sequencing, but also an expert analysis of test results that includes information on more than 200 conditions, Veritas says.
“The focus in our industry is shifting from the cost of sequencing genomes to interpretation capabilities and that’s where our secret sauce is,” said Veritas CEO Mirza Cifric in a news release. “We’ve built and deployed a world class platform to deliver clinically-actionable insights at scale.” The company also says it “achieved this milestone primarily by deploying internally-developed machine learning and AI [artificial intelligence] tools as well as external tools—including Google’s DeepVariant—and by improving its in-house lab operations.”
The myGenome service offers 30x WGS, which Veritas touts in company documentation as the “gold standard” for sequencing, compared to the less-precise 0.4x WGS.
The myGenome service is available only in the United States.
Will Whole-Genome Sequencing Replace Other Genetic Tests?
Church predicts that WGS will someday replace other genetic tests, such as the genotyping used by personal genomics and biotechnology company 23andMe.
“Companies like 23andMe that are based on genotyping technology basically opened the market over the last decade,” Martinez explained in an interview with WTF Health. “They’ve done an incredible job of getting awareness in the general population.”
However, he goes on to say, “In genotyping technology, you
are looking at very specific points of the genome, less than half of one
percent, a very small amount.”
Martinez says Veritas is sequencing all 6.4 billion letters
of the genome. And, with the new price point, “we’re closer to realizing that
seismic shift,” he said in the news release.
“This is the inflection point,” Martinez told CNBC.
“This is the point where the curve turns upward. You reach a critical mass when
you are able to provide a product that gives value at a specific price point.
This is the beginning of that. That’s why it’s seismic.”
Payment Models Not Yet Established by Government, Private
However, tying WGS into personalized medicine that leads to actionable diagnoses may not be easy. Robin Bennett, PhD (hon.), a board certified senior genetic counselor and Professor of Medicine and Medical Genetics at UW School of Medicine, told CNBC, “[Healthcare] may be moving in that direction, but the payment for testing and for services, it hasn’t moved in the preventive direction. So, unless the healthcare system changes, these tests may not be as useful because … the healthcare system hasn’t caught up to say, ‘Yes, we support payment for this.’”
“Insurers are looking for things where, if you get the
information, there’s something you can do with it and that both the provider
and the patient are willing and able to use that information to do things that
improve their health,” Phillips told CNBC. “Insurers are very interested
in using genetic testing for prevention, but we need to . . . demonstrate that
the information will be used and that it’s a good trade-off between the
benefits and the costs.”
Sequencing for Free If You Share Your Data
Church may have an answer for that as well—get biopharmaceutical companies to foot the bill. Though Veritas’ new price for their myGenome service is significantly lower than before, it’s not free. That’s what Nebula Genomics, a start-up genetics company in Massachusetts co-founded by Church, offers people willing to share the data derived from their sequencing. To help biomedical researchers gather data for their studies, Nebula provides free or partially-paid-for whole-genome sequencing to qualified candidates.
“Nebula will enable individuals to get sequenced at much
lower cost through sequencing subsidies paid by the biopharma industry,” Church
“We need to bring the costs of personal genome sequencing close to zero to
achieve mass adoption.”
So, will lower-priced whole-genome sequencing catch on?
Perhaps. It’s certainly popular with everyday people who want to learn their
ancestry or predisposition to certain diseases. How it will ultimately affect
clinical laboratories and pathologists remains to be seen, but one thing is
certain—WGS is here to stay.
Following the raid, the company’s co-founders resigned
from the board of directors
Microbiome testing company, uBiome, a biotechnology developer that offers at-home direct-to-consumer (DTC) test kits to health-conscious individuals who wish to learn more about the bacteria in their gut, or who want to have their microbiome genetically sequenced, has recently come under investigation by insurance companies and state regulators that are looking into the company’s business practices.
reported that the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) raided the company’s San Francisco headquarters in
April following allegations of insurance fraud and questionable billing
practices. The alleged offenses, according to CNBC, included claims that
uBiome routinely billed patients for tests multiple times without consent.
Hospital Review wrote that, “Billing documents obtained by The Wall Street
Journal and described in a June 24 report further illustrate uBiome’s
allegedly improper billing and prescribing practices. For example, the
documents reportedly show that the startup would bill insurers for a lab test
of 12 to 25 gastrointestinal pathogens, despite the fact that its tests only
included information for about five pathogens.”
Company Insider Allegations Trigger FBI Raid
In its article, CNBC stated that “company insiders”
alleged it was “common practice” for uBiome to bill patients’ insurance
companies multiple times for the same test.
“The company also pressured its doctors to approve tests
with minimal oversight, according to insiders and internal documents seen by CNBC.
The practices were in service of an aggressive growth plan that focused on
increasing the number of billable tests served,” CNBC wrote.
FierceBiotech reported that, “According to previous
reports, the large insurers Anthem, Aetna, and Regence BlueCross BlueShield
have been examining the company’s billing practices for its physician-ordered
tests—as has the California Department of Insurance—with probes focusing on
possible financial connections between uBiome and the doctors ordering the
tests, as well as rumors of double-billing for tests using the same sample.”
Becker’s Hospital Review revealed that when the FBI
raided uBiome they seized employee computers. And that, following the raid,
uBiome had announced it would temporarily suspend clinical operations and not
release reports, process samples, or bill health insurance for their services.
The company also announced layoffs and that it would stop
selling SmartJane and SmartGut test kits, Becker’s reported.
uBiome Assumes New Leadership
Following the FBI raid, uBiome placed its co-founders Jessica
Richman (CEO) and Zac
Apte (CTO) on administrative leave while conducting an internal
investigation (both have since resigned from the company’s board of directors).
The company’s board of directors then named general counsel, John Rakow, to be interim CEO,
After serving two months as the interim CEO, Rakow resigned
from the position. The interim leadership of uBiome was then handed over to
three directors from Goldin
Associates, a New York City-based consulting firm, FierceBiotech
reported. They include:
SmartFlu: a nasal microbiome swab that detects bacteria and viruses associated with the flu, the common cold, and bacterial infections.
What Went Wrong?
Richman and Apte founded uBiome in 2012 with the intent of
marketing a new test that would prove a link between peoples’ microbiome and their
overall health. The two founders initially raised more than $100 million from
venture capitalists, and, according to PitchBook,
uBiome was last valued at around $600 million, Forbes
Nevertheless, as a company, uBiome’s future is uncertain. Of
greater concern to clinical laboratory leaders is whether at-home microbiology
self-test kits will become a viable, safe alternative to tests traditionally performed
by qualified personnel in controlled laboratory environments.