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17 Former Employees Accuse Orig3n of Clinical Laboratory Test Inaccuracies, Contamination, and Fabricated Test Results

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 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?

Federal Regulators Issue Notice to DTC Test Company Orig3n That Its Purchase of Interleukin Genetics Could Involve CLIA Compliance Issues

CMS sends letter to Orig3n notifying the genetic test company that it may not have the required certifications to market its genetic tests

Orig3n’s recent ill-fated “DNA Day” promotion to offer free genetic tests during an NFL football game this past fall pushed Orig3n into the media spotlight. The Massachusetts-based biotech company—which sells 18 different DNA tests on its website—suspended the promotion due to questions from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) regarding the legality of the testing under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA).

Since then, however, new details from BuzzFeed and GenomeWeb indicate that Orig3n may not have the required certifications to market their genetic tests after all. On October 30, 2017, CMS served Orig3n with an out-of-compliance notice. According to BuzzFeed, the letter came from Karen Dyer, MT (ASCP) DLM, Director, Division of Laboratory Services and the CLIA program at CMS.

In a letter to Kate Blanchard, Chief Operating Officer at Orig3n, Dyer wrote, “To apply for CLIA certification, Orig3n must contact both the Massachusetts and California state agencies immediately for guidance. Orig3n’s various tests analyze 18 genes related to health, from ‘muscle power’ to ‘sugar sensitivity’ to ‘age-related metabolism’. It offers genetic testing that provides information for the assessment of health.” The letter gave Orig3n a November 13 deadline to update CMS on issues regarding their CLIA certification.

Robin Smith, CEO, Orig3n, told GenomeWeb the notice “was the first time that any clear guidance was given regarding specific genes and requirements for CLIA/non-CLIA.” He also noted efforts Orig3n undertook over the prior year to fully certify their laboratory.

The test shown above is one of 18 genetic tests Orig3n offers direct to consumers. According to Vice, Orig3n claims their tests do not require FDA-approval “because the tests are not diagnostic [and] they don’t require it.” The Baltimore Sun reported that “Orig3n is confident it can receive the proper approvals and plans to have a fan giveaway later this season at one of our games.” (Photo copyright: Orig3n.)

A Quick Resolution for Orig3n’s CLIA Woes?

Fortunately for Orig3n, meeting compliance and obtaining certification for their existing lab is no longer a requirement to resolve the issue. In a November press release, Orig3n announced the purchase of Interleukin Genetics. Orig3n plans to absorb Interleukin’s existing assets, including a CLIA-certified genetics laboratory in Waltham, Mass., capable of analyzing more than one million samples annually.

“Once we met with Interleukin Genetics, we saw a natural alignment between the two organizations regarding our shared commitment to a future of personalized health,” Smith noted. “With our trajectory of accelerated growth, we couldn’t imagine a better fit for acquisition. We are very pleased to be welcoming Interleukin Genetics to Orig3n.”

GenomeWeb asked Blanchard how the acquisition would impact Orig3n’s commercialization of the 18 tests in question by CMS, now that Orig3n owns a CLIA-certified lab, and through it, meets the requirements of CMS’ out-of-compliance notice. Blanchard declined to comment.

New Concerns Surrounding Interleukin Assets

Yet, in solving one set of problems, some experts believe Orig3n might have inherited a new set. In July 2016, GenomeWeb reported that Interleukin Genetics would be laying off 63% of its staff. Unable to secure a clinical services agreement, the company could not extend debt payment deferrals with its senior lenders. At the time of writing, debts totaled $5.6 million.

Further complicating matters, a 2015 peer-reviewed analysis published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) questioned the clinical validity of an inflammation management program called “Ilustra” that Interleukin claimed, “identifies individuals with an increased risk for severe and progressive periodontitis, due to a life-long genetic predisposition to over-produce Interleukin-1 (IL-1), a key mediator of inflammation.”

Another GenomeWeb article reported on the turbulent road the Ilustra program followed until Orig3n eventually pulled it from the market. GenomeWeb noted critics’ concerns about the marketing of precision medicine, genetic testing, and regulatory issues facing medical laboratories as these technologies mature.

Clinical Laboratories Continue to Field Concerns Over DTC Testing

“This [genetic] test would have been laughed out of the room if it had been presented to oncologists, or to professionals in medical genetics,” declared Scott Diehl, PhD, co-author of the JAMA analysis, a genetics researcher at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, and Professor and Principal Investigator at Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences.

GenomeWeb notes in their latest coverage that with Orig3n’s purchase of Interleukin Genetics, Diehl is once again concerned that the genetic tests in question might find their way back to the market.

When GenomeWeb questioned Orig3n about the concerns surrounding Interleukin’s Ilustra product, a spokesperson stated, “that was simply before Orig3n’s time with the company and they do not have a part in it.” Blanchard added, “[We are] looking at the entire Interleukin portfolio and implementing the tests if and when we decide it is appropriate.”

Regardless of the decisions made by Orig3n on future genetic tests and genetic service offerings, coverage of this event highlights a myriad of concerns—from regulatory scrutiny to the pitfalls of acquiring existing diagnostic tests or laboratory assets—facing clinical laboratories, anatomic pathologists, and other medical professionals working in the ever-shifting landscape of the modern healthcare system.

—Jon Stone

Related Information:

This DNA Testing Company Is Violating Federal Lab Testing Rule

Orig3n Acquires Interleukin Genetics, a Genetics-based Personalized Health Company, to Advance the Future of Health Faster

Orig3n’s Purchase of Interleukin’s CLIA Lab May Appease CMS, But Some Question Plans for Test Assets

Biotech Company Offers Fitness and Beauty-Focused Genetic Tests

Interleukin Genetics Slashes 63 Percent of Workforce, Shuts down Program and Mulls Sale

‘DNA Day’ Planned for Ravens Game Undergoes Federal and State Scrutiny

Interleukin Shutting Down Genetic Testing Program, Lays Off Staff

Divergent Findings on Interleukin Gum Disease Risk Test Raise Questions about Clinical Use

Interleukin 1 Genetic Tests Provide No Support for Reduction of Preventive Dental Care

Controversial Gum Disease Risk Test Highlights Precision Medicine Marketing, Regulatory Issues

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