The $1,000 genome is a reality. Actually, you’ll save a dollar. It’s $999.
A Cambridge, Massachusetts, company, Veritas Genetics, said this week that is how much it will charge for a consumer-friendly know-your-genome service that would pair insight into your genetic makeup with a handy phone app and on-demand video calls with genetic counselors.
The company said a genome test, which it will launch in April, should essentially replace every other type of genetic test since it effectively provides all the answers at once. It will include all six billion letters of a person’s genome, analyzed by an algorithm to highlight medical predispositions. Consumers would learn facts ranging from the silly (is their earwax wet or dry?) to the potentially scary, like whether they have “highly pathogenic germline mutations” that cause things like malignant hyperthermia. They’ll also learn whether their genomes harbor mutations in 150 genes linked to cancer susceptibility, such as the BRCA breast cancer genes.
Most genetic tests, like those for cancer risk, are now carried out separately, and at a cost of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each. Veritas offers such tests as well, but Veritas CEO and cofounder Mirza Cifric says it’s now becoming easier to simply sequence the entire genome.
The company’s service is almost certain to attract scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In an interview, Cifric said genome data isn’t a substitute for a diagnosis by a doctor. What’s more, the accuracy of the data Veritas provides is less than that of some of the more targeted genetic tests. “It’s a screening test, it’s not a diagnostic,” says Cifric.
Veritas will begin collecting blood or spit samples from customers in April and the first should have their results by June, he says. Its app, still in beta, will include buttons to “share” DNA information with a coach or trainer, and news feeds of medical information customized to a person’s DNA code.
Some patients are already getting their genomes sequenced because they have cancer or an undiagnosed disease, or just out of curiosity. But the process isn’t simple yet. It requires a doctor to order the test, and the results are delivered in a format that’s gibberish to anyone who isn’t an expert. Current prices run $6,000 and upward.
A “$1,000 genome” was first announced by Illumina in 2014, but that referred to the cost of producing the raw data on that company’s instruments. What’s new is that Veritas is offering the data, along with interpretation, for a price of less than $1,000.
So far, efforts to get DNA health data into the hands of consumers have been beleaguered by falling prices, FDA scrutiny, and lack of demand. But companies keep trying because they believe the trend is inevitable. In February, a Utah company, Sure Genomics, said it would offer a sequencing service for $2,500, and Illumina itself is developing a “DNA app store” called Helix that’s designed to make access to gene information easier. J. Craig Venter’s startup Human Longevity last year also began offering genome data to consumers, including through their insurance companies.
To use Veritas, a doctor will still have to order the test, and customers will undergo a genetic counseling session on the phone or through the app. Involving a doctor allows Veritas to dodge strict FDA regulations on “direct-to-consumer” DNA tests. Instead, Veritas says its product will fall under looser rules governing ordinary laboratory tests, like blood counts or cholesterol levels.
That’s a dodge that’s certain to be scrutinized by regulators, especially when a consumer app is part of the product. Other skeptics will question if Veritas or anyone else can turn a profit at such low prices. “We are going to do it without losing money,” Cifric promises. He says, for example, that Veritas might earn additional revenue charging customers $100 or more for additional genetic counseling sessions.
Veritas is a spin-off of a nonprofit called the Personal Genome Project, started by Harvard University scientists more than 10 years ago to stimulate interest in genomics. That project urged people to get sequenced and to openly publish their gene data and information about themselves to further medical research.
Knowing your genome could prove hugely valuable if you discover life-changing information, such as a serious disease risk. The problem is that, for many people, the genome doesn’t hold the information they urgently need. The average person can learn more by stepping on a bathroom scale than from their DNA, according to skeptics.
Misha Angrist, a professor at the Duke University Institute for Genome Science and Policy, who had his own genome decoded a few years ago by the Harvard project, says Veritas will need to answer many questions about its test, like how it will convey bad news, how it handles DNA whose meaning remains uncertain, and what will happen to people’s data if the company goes out of business.
When it comes to the genome, says Angrist, “the devil is always in the details.”