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November 2007 Posts
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Minnesota Gene Pool Blog

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November 16, 2007

Everybody's doing it

In reading that yet another high-profile genomic science company is getting into the business of providing genomic-typing and interpretation services to consumers, I can't help but hear the echo of my mother's voice in response to my youthful protestations that "everybody is doing it." Her timeless response was applicable then and now. "Would you jump off a cliff if everybody was doing it?" Either DeCode is making a shrewd business move or they are racing headlong toward the cliff to crash upon the rocks of pseudoscience below. Time will tell. I report; you decide.

Decode Throws Hat into Consumer Genomics Ring November 16, 2007 By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Decode Genetics said today it will join the small pack of companies racing to take the lead in making genomics personal, by offering a subscription-based genotyping service that allows customers to “get a detailed look at their own genome.?

The company said the DecodeMe service will use a cheek-swab sample and a password-controlled personal account to give customers analysis about their own genomic information, including knowledge about genetic variants associated with risks for common diseases, ancestry, and traits such as hair and eye color.

Decode CEO Kari Stefansson said during a webcast this morning that the service has two components: the genotyping service and a secure website.

In the genotyping portion of the service, Decode will measure up to a million different DNA markers and then annotate those markers and put them in the context of disease risk. Subscribers can then visit the website, where they “can take their genome and examine it in the context of the literature. That is the first time this has been done,? said Stefansson.

Decode is not the first firm to announce that it will offer genomics services for the consumer market. In May, California-based start-up 23andMe, backed by an investment from Google, said it plans to offer a similar service that will offer “personal insight into ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits.?

In September, Navigenics said it has teamed with Affymetrix to create its offering, which also will be a web-based service. The company last week said that it has begun taking orders for its service, but doesn't plan to begin testing until early next year.

Stefansson emphasized that the firm is not offering a genetic test. “We strongly encourage you not use this to make medical decisions,? he said during the webcast. “If there is something that raises concerns when you look at your result … you can ask a question that will be answered by our experts.? The firm may also refer subscribers to a genetic counselor, he added.

Decode is offering its services at an early promotional cost of just under $985, but it did not say how long that promotion will last or how much the service will cost once the promotion ends. By comparison, Navigenics plans to offer its service for $2,500, GenomeWeb Daily News sister publication In Sequence reported.

Subscribers’ genomic information will be continually updated as new data is discovered in the genomics and genetics areas, the company said.

“I think that what we have done here is ... put together an opportunity for the man on the street to develop a deeper understanding of human genetics," said Stefansson.

© Copyright 2007 GenomeWeb Daily News. All rights Reserved.

November 13, 2007

DNA, Race and Worries About Prejudice

Race as a social construct? Race as biological categories that correlate with geographical origin(s)? The early fruits of the genomic era seem to be providing new grist for this ongoing debate. In deed, all people are more alike than we are different. But, when scientists look into the genetic similarities and differences between people, they find that people who share more recent ancestry have unique similarities not shared by people who come from different geographical areas of the globe. However, there is growing fear that these small changes may be linked to traits with either high or low social value, which may result in science seeming to justify prejudicial stereotypes. In deed, the recent comments from James Watson on race and intelligence and social policies were unfortunate and roundly rejected, but serve to illustrate that these concerns may be justified. As scientists, we must not suppress facts that are revealed by research, but we also must always keep in mind that potential social and ethical consequences as facts are interpreted from different perspectives.

Amy Harmon has an interesting story on these issues in the New York Times today.

Newborn screening in the news again

A story by Chen May Yee published on November 10, 2007 in the Star Tribune highlights the issues raised by the State's newborn screening program. Public health officials, medical professionals, parents of kids with metabolic disoroders and other advocates say that the program needs to remain mandatory so that no child is missed. Advocates for privacy and personal autonomy say that genetic testing should not be done on babies without consent of the parents. Others are against the state having access to their children's blood sample and / or their personal information.

The StarTribune has set up a readers' forum for people to tell their stories and to comment. At this writing, there were some 63 entries from several perspectives. The most poignant entries are from parents whose kids lives or health have been affected by the conditions that are included in the screen, both the kids who have been saved and those who might have been, if screening had been available for them. Many of the privacy advocates do not want to nix the program, but do feel it is important for parents to provide consent for testing. A minority feel that the program is too risky because it is associated with the government. Check it out and add your comments to this growing conversation.

I am glad to see that this issue is being debated openly. It is important to get all of the viewpoints and perspectives into the open. I think the way to develop public policy on how a population-based, state run genetic screening program for these serious conditions is to encourage more discussion, not less. We need more people to learn more about these issues and contribute to the public discussion to inform policy and provide a public program that reflects the needs and values of Minesota's citizens.