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DeCode is Bankrupt; So is The Idea of "Pure" Genomics

It’s time to start giving as much attention to the rest of human biology as we have lavished on genetics.
November 18, 2009

A decade ago, genomics-based companies were all the rage. Then one by one nearly all of the high-fliers of that era went bust, were acquired, or restructured (Celera, Orchid, etc). One of the last to hang on has been deCode Genetics of Iceland, a company that has produced a raft of important genetic association studies for a range of diseases and traits, from diabetes to heart disease. In 2007 they launched a direct-to-consumer website, deCodeme, and have been trying to build a genomic diagnostic business.

Now deCode has fallen, too, after several rough years punctuated by the recent financial meltdown and the collapse of the Iceland economy. The company recently filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S.

But deCode will continue in some form thanks to a group of investors that have funded an enterprise called Saga Investments, apparently named for the collection of “sagas” written centuries ago that tell the tales of the Vikings who settled Iceland in the ninth century. (These epic tales are favorites of deCode CEO and co-founder Kari Stefansson). The investors include original funders of the deCode “saga”–Polaris Venture Partners and Arch Venture.

Details of the deal and what exactly the company will look like after the dust settles is unclear, though I got an email from deCodeme saying that their direct to consumer service will continue uninterrupted.

The lesson here this is that genomics and genome-wide association studies continue to be merely one part of the equation of what goes on inside a human’s body. As both science and a business proposition, other crucial factors that make us who we are–and perhaps who we will be in the future in terms of disease–need to be integrated and understood. These include environmental factors, proteomics, epigenetics, microbiomics, and much more.

And yet genomics continues to much of the attention from the media and in one conference after another–and in the continued attention being paid to direct-to-consumer genomics companies that are offering DNA data that is at best just one factor in a person’s proclivity for acquiring a common disease.

This near obsession with genomics comes in part because DNA is much simpler and tidier with its neat rows of code than the rest of biology, which is dynamic and variable–and therefore sloppier to get a handle on and to understand. For more on this, check out my recent article on bio-computational wiz Eric Schadt and complex biology in the New York Times.

As deCode’s demise (or restructuring?) suggests, genomics alone can’t provide the answers we are seeking in personalized and predictive healthcare–though we can be appreciative of the contributions made by deCode researchers in the past and, hopefully–as the saga continues–in the future.

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