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You Can Now Get Your Whole Genome Sequenced for Less Than an iPhone

But will people buy it — and is all that genetic information actually worth it?

Images: Veritas

Veritas Genetics is making a big bet that people want to know what’s in their genome.

The Boston-based company, which started offering whole genome sequencing in 2016 for $999 — the first company to do so below four figures — announced today that it is lowering the price to $599. For much less than the price of the latest iPhone model, consumers can get a full readout of their DNA.

Veritas’ move is a clear signal that genetic sequencing technology is getting cheaper as it becomes more automated — but whether people will want to know about the disease risks that may lurk in their genomes is yet to be seen. But Veritas thinks its new price point will be low enough to convince customers that decoding their entire genome is worth it.

“This price point will change the paradigm of how people look at genomics and how they access it,” Mirza Cifric, CEO of Veritas, told OneZero.

Whole genome sequencing is the process of spelling out a person’s entire DNA sequence, all 6 billion letters. By contrast, most consumer genetic tests, including 23andMe and AncestryDNA, use a less comprehensive technique called genotyping, which only decodes specific genes of interest. It’s the difference between reading the entire book of life versus just a few pages.

In 2003, after 13 years and an estimated $2.7 billion, an international research effort completed sequencing the first human genome. The project provided researchers with more insight into human genes and their functions than ever before, but it wasn’t long before the industry realized the financial value of the decoded genome. By 2007, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company called Knome had introduced the first direct-to-consumer genome sequencing test for $350,000. A few years later, San Diego company Illumina, which manufactures the most widely used sequencing machines in the U.S., began offering genome sequencing to consumers with a doctor’s permission at an initial price of around $50,000.

Veritas’ whole genome product — dubbed myGenome — gives customers information on more than around 200 health conditions and 80 genes, including 20 so-called highly actionable ones.

From there, it was a race to the “$1,000 genome,” a slogan that became a goal for the burgeoning genetic sequencing industry. Illumina claimed that achievement in 2014 when it said it was able to produce the first genome for $1,000 — but that referred to the cost of generating the data and interpreting it, not the higher price it charged labs and hospitals.

Veritas’ whole genome product — dubbed myGenome — gives customers information on more than 200 health conditions and 80 genes, including 20 so-called highly actionable ones, like whether you have certain alterations in the BRCA genes that raise your risk of breast and ovarian cancers or whether you carry genetic mutations associated with Long QT syndrome, a potentially life-threatening heart rhythm condition. The report also reveals how effectively you metabolize or potentially react to 170 drugs, and whether you’re a carrier for 40 genetic conditions that can be passed on to future children, including cystic fibrosis, hereditary deafness, and Tay-Sachs disease. The test requires a physician sign-off. You can get it from your own doctor, or you can pay an additional $129 to get authorization from a partner doctor who works with Veritas.

Back in November, Veritas offered its myGenome product for $199 as a pre-Thanksgiving promotion. The sale was supposed to last two days, but the 1,000 genomes Veritas was offering as part of the campaign sold out in just six hours — proof to the company that there was consumer demand for cheap whole genome sequencing. For comparison, 23andMe — which has more than 10 million customers — charges $199 for its combined health and ancestry test, which looks at a person’s genetic predisposition for 12 different conditions, including late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, celiac, and selected BRCA mutations.

At the time, Cifric said the company was taking a loss on those $199 genomes. At $599 a genome, however, he says Veritas is making a small profit, though he wouldn’t comment on how much it actually costs the company to do the sequencing. (As a private company, Veritas doesn’t release financial data.) But Cifric says it has been able to reduce the cost of sequencing in part thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence tools, like Google’s DeepVariant, which have helped automate the interpretation of genetic data.

Veritas says it will make additional money off a new subscription model it plans to launch this fall. Customers who purchase Veritas’ $599 myGenome offering will have the option of paying a monthly fee around the price of a Netflix or Spotify subscription to get regular bulletins about their genome, updated with the pace of genetic research.

“As the science is rapidly increasing, people are interested in staying at the cutting edge of knowing about their genomics and how it affects their lives,” Cifric says.

What Veritas hopes is that users will repeatedly return to its online portal and mobile app to continue exploring their genome. It’s not a new business model, however. The genomics company Helix rolled out a DNA “app store” in 2017. Customers paid an initial $80 to sequence a portion of their genome called the exome — the 2% that contains most of the known important genes. That information was then stored by Helix and given out to other companies selling DNA “apps” on the Helix platform. Those apps ranged from tests grounded in medical genetics, like ones that revealed your risk for inherited cholesterol and heart problems, to more whimsical (and less scientific) ones, like those that claimed to tell you your wine preferences based on your DNA.

But Helix recently pivoted away from the consumer market, saying that it would instead work with health care providers. And Color Genomics, which offers a $249 genetic cancer risk test that can be ordered like Veritas’ test, has decided to shift its focus from individual consumers to large health care organizations. It’s a sign that companies in the genetic sequencing space think they can reach more patients through health care partners — and perhaps, that ordinary consumers are more interested in their ancestry results than genetic health information.

Veritas thinks it can succeed where others couldn’t because the company provides more health data per dollar than others in the space. But even at $999 — Veritas’ older price point — consumers weren’t clamoring to get their entire genomes sequenced. Veritas says that since 2016 it has sold between 4,000 to 5,000 genomes directly to individual consumers. That doesn’t include genomes ordered by researchers or through the company’s partnerships with health care organizations, like the Mayo Clinic. At $599, the company projects it will sell between 15,000 and 20,000 genomes this year on the consumer side alone.

“Moving from $1,000 to $600 will absolutely lower the bar,” says Gary Gustavsen, partner and managing director at Health Advances, a health care consulting firm, who’s not involved with Veritas. “I think we’ll see more patients and even a lot of healthy people ordering these tests.”

Whole genome sequencing is increasingly being employed for patients who have cancer, serious genetic diseases, or symptoms that doctors can’t explain. The test can help determine the genetic drivers of disease, providing diagnoses and guiding treatment. But it’s far from clear how useful such tests are for otherwise healthy people, and most doctors aren’t trained to communicate complicated and often uncertain genetic results to patients. And because many diseases can have both genetic and environmental causes, it’s often hard for physicians to make specific health recommendations to patients based off genetic data.

“The concern is that we’re opening Pandora’s box,” Gustavsen says. “A lot of physicians are not recommending that healthy patients receive widespread genetic testing at this point.” Plus, insurers don’t always cover it.

But George Church, the prominent Harvard geneticist who co-founded Veritas and started Knome before it, thinks of genome sequencing like an insurance policy. “Insurance will pay you if something bad happens to you,” he says. “Here you pay a fraction of that. This is to avoid something bad happening to you.”

From whole genome sequencing, you could find out whether you have a higher risk of developing a certain condition like cancer, which might then prompt you to take preventive measures like exercising more, changing your diet, or getting certain health screenings. Church, who has sequenced his own genome, says the process can also help advise prospective parents of their risk of passing on certain genetic conditions to their children.

Another one of Church’s companies, Nebula Genomics, offers a free version of genome sequencing to customers, but only if they answer detailed questions about themselves, including family medical history and drinking habits, and agree to share their genomes with researchers who subsidize the cost of sequencing. Nebula’s offering also isn’t the clinical-grade sequencing that Veritas is selling, the kind that is used in medicine and research, but rather what’s known as “low-pass” genome sequencing, a cheaper option that doesn’t provide as much information.

But while an expert like Church can understand what his genetic data means, some in the medical community worry that the health risk information from whole genome sequencing could be confusing, stressful, or even overwhelming to ordinary people who aren’t suffering from an obvious disease. For instance, there’s a risk that people could take extreme or unnecessary preventive measures like getting a mastectomy if they find out they have a BRCA mutation. Testing positive for a mutation in a disease-causing gene doesn’t mean you have that disease or will ever develop it. And at the same time, just because sequencing doesn’t reveal a potentially harmful mutation now doesn’t mean you don’t have one that has yet to be discovered. Geneticists are still identifying new genes and learning about how different genetic alterations and interactions can cause disease.

Though Veritas’ price drop will likely net it a new class of customers, the cost of DNA sequencing has been plummeting for years and is almost certain to continue falling. But price may prove less of a barrier than expertise — masses of genetic data won’t prove truly useful to average consumers until health care providers can figure out how to deliver results to patients and turn that information into actionable medical advice. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will make genetic sequencing faster and cheaper, but it still takes doctors to make meaning of it all.

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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