Gloomy genetics company casts cloud over personal genomics prospects

chromosomes2.jpgThereâ''s some unexpected news coming from DeCode Genetics, the nifty Icelandic company that tests fragments of your inner cheek for genetic markers of diabetes, prostrate cancer, concerns of the heart, and more. The company is scaling back its workforce by 15 percent, ostensibly triggered by an unexpected market downturn. â''It would even be wise for other companies in our community to follow our example,â'' says Kari Stefansson, the companyâ''s CEOâ''and Iâ''m assuming that by community he doesnâ''t mean Rejkjavik.

So is this merely a hiccup, or a sign of larger problems on the road to personalized medicine? DeCode, the Google-backed 23andMe, and a Massachussetts-based company called Knome all launched whole genome scans in November 2007, so the field is extremely young. The blog Eye On DNA thoroughly dissects Stefanssonâ''s comments and the outlook for DeCode and its â''communityâ''â''namely, 23andMe, Knome, and a couple others. In short, itâ''s not entirely clear what caused this unexpected market shift, but itâ''s worrying given how far the price of genome scans must fall before it becomes a viable option for people other than millionaires and celebrities of the science world.

For those with cash to spare, the going rate is $350 000, which was what biotechnology entrepreneur Dan Stoicesku paid Knome when in January he became the second person to pay to have his entire genetic code sequenced. The first, apparently, was a customer picked up by Knomeâ''s Beijing-based partner company.

A March 4 story in The New York Times quotes Stoicesku as saying heâ''d rather have a more clear picture of his health profile than buy a Bentley.

Right. Soâ'¿. itâ''s not quite the $1000 genome. Or as the Times relates it,

â''I was in someoneâ''s Bentley once â'' nice car,â'' said James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, whose genome was sequenced last year by a company that donated the $1.5 million in costs to demonstrate its technology. â''Would I rather have my genome sequenced or have a Bentley? Uh, toss up.â''

But itâ''s not all doom and gloom in the genomics world. Earlier this week, Google announced that it had invested an unspecified amount in the Personal Genome Project, a plan by George Church of Harvard University to create a database of 100,000 subjectsâ'' sequences of protein-coding DNA segments correlated with health histories and body features. This investment marks the third large, public move by Google into the medical space. First came its $3.9 million investment in 23andMe, and in February the search giant and the Cleveland Clinic teamed up to improve the management of electronic health records.

Nor is all genomics news sensible: a March 5 BBC story covers the debate over exhuming Galileoâ''s body to scan his DNA for the genetic roots of his blindness. The story doesn't put a price on revealing Galileo's ocular misfortunes, but in this case, Iâ''d rather have the Bentley.

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