The Price of DNA Sequencing Dropped From $2.7 Billion to $300 in Less Than 20 Years

Nebula Genomics is offering access to your entire genetic makeup for less than the price of an Apple Watch

Photo: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

Genome sequencing was once impossibly expensive. The Human Genome Project, an international effort to decode the human genome that launched in 1990, took 13 years and an estimated $2.7 billion to complete. Then, in 2007, DNA pioneer James Watson became the first person to get his genome sequenced for less than $1 million. Since then, the cost of genome sequencing has been decreasing at a rate faster than Moore’s law.

Now, Nebula Genomics, a spinout of Harvard University co-founded by geneticist George Church, is launching an at-home whole genome sequencing test for less than the price of the latest Apple Watch. At $299, Nebula’s service provides a readout of a person’s entire genetic code.

Nebula’s sequencing is a much more comprehensive test than the ones offered by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, which use a different technique called genotyping. Genotyping looks at only a small part of the genome. For instance, 23andMe’s $199 health and ancestry test reports on a handful of genetic variants associated with about a dozen health conditions. Sequencing looks at all of a person’s genes and their variants. It’s the difference between reading a few pages versus an entire book.

Nebula’s sequencing is a much more comprehensive test than the ones offered by companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA.

In 2016, Boston-based Veritas Genetics, also co-founded by Church, was the first company to break the much-hyped $1,000 threshold for genome sequencing. Last year, Veritas slashed that price to $599, crediting automation for the drop. But at the end of 2019, the company abruptly shut down U.S. operations after what the startup called an “unexpected adverse financing situation.”

Today, Nebula is offering even cheaper genome sequencing — and is trying out a new business model. Most other at-home DNA testing companies rely on a one-time purchase. Customers have little reason to continue their relationship with these companies after they review their DNA results. To keep people coming back, Nebula is launching a subscription service that will provide weekly updates about new genetics studies and explain to users how these findings relate to their own DNA. To get these additional insights, customers can pay a monthly fee of $9.99 a month for a yearly subscription or $19.99 for a month-to-month subscription on top of the initial $299 for genome sequencing. Nebula customers also get an in-depth ancestry analysis.

“I think the direction in which the whole market is going is providing more comprehensive tests that go beyond ancestry,” says Dennis Grishin, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Nebula, referring to direct-to-consumer genetic testing in general.

In fact, genealogy company Ancestry is taking a similar approach. In October, it announced a new health screening test for $199 that will initially report on a handful of medical conditions. A biannual subscription fee of $49 gives users updates about their genetic information every few months. The test isn’t available yet, but Ancestry says it will launch sometime in 2020. At a time when the at-home genetic testing craze has hit a lull, these expanded services could spark new interest.

Nebula hopes to further differentiate itself by taking a different tack when it comes to privacy. Like other DNA testing companies, Nebula shares users’ data with research partners, such as pharmaceutical companies. But it offers customers more control over their genetic data than is typical. Ancestry and 23andMe have two options for sharing your data for research: a blanket consent that allows the companies to share your de-identified genetic data with any research partner that wants to use it and an option to not share your data at all. Nebula offers these options as well, plus a third one: Users can opt to receive a separate consent request every time a research partner wants to use their data.

At a time when the at-home genetic testing craze has hit a lull, these services could spark new interest.

“We try to make sure everything is very transparent, that people know what happens with their data, who uses it and for what purpose,” Grishin says. Nebula uses a blockchain to protect customers’ data and offers anonymous genome sequencing.

Whether there is a mass market for whole genome sequencing remains to be seen. Gillian Hooker, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, says one hurdle is that many people just haven’t heard of whole genome sequencing or are skeptical of how useful the results will be for managing their health. After all, scientists are still learning how to interpret the genome, and most doctors don’t yet know what to do with the results of whole genome sequencing tests.

“There is a small percentage of people who get genome sequencing who learn something that will change their health care,” Hooker says. For instance, a person might learn they have a genetic variant that raises their risk of cancer or heart disease, so a doctor might recommend more frequent screening for those conditions. Right now, most people don’t walk away with actionable information, she says. But that will likely change as scientists’ understanding of genetics evolves.

With the price getting increasingly cheaper, whole genome sequencing could soon replace the more limited genetic tests that dominate the market today.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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