A DNA App Store Is Here, but Proceed with Caution

A DNA App Store Is Here, but Proceed with Caution

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A Silicon Valley startup called Helix is betting on the notion that not only do people want to learn more about their DNA, but they’ll also pay to keep interacting with it.

Today the company, which was founded in 2015 with $100 million from genomics giant Illumina, is launching its much-anticipated online hub where people can digitally explore their genetic code by downloading different applications on their computers or mobile devices. Think of it as an app store for your genome (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2016: DNA App Store”).

Personalized genetic information has become an affordable commodity. The early success of leaders like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which sell DNA testing kits for $200 or less, has ushered in a wave of new companies offering direct-to-consumer genetic tests for everything from ancestry to the wine you should drink based on your DNA.

Most of these genetic testing kits are one-time deals. You spit in a tube, and your saliva is sent off to a lab to be analyzed. A few weeks later you get a long, detailed report of your genetic makeup. Helix CEO Robin Thurston says all that information can be daunting, and most people don’t come back to the data again and again. 

With Helix, people will be able to choose the things about their genome they want to learn about. For an initial $80, Helix sequences the most important part of the genome—about 20,000 genes plus some other bits—called the exome. That information is digitized and stored by Helix, which doles out pieces of the information to companies selling other apps through Helix. “It’s our goal that someone will have a lifelong relationship with their DNA data,” Thurston says.

Other direct-to-consumer testing companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA use a technology called genotyping to analyze a customer’s genes. Helix uses a more detailed method known as DNA sequencing, which yields about 100 times more information. So far, most people who have gotten exome sequencing, which can cost several hundred to more than a thousand dollars elsewhere, have been patients with rare or unknown medical conditions who hope their genes can provide more answers. Exome sequencing for healthy people is a new, untapped market. 

From the consumer side, people will have to get their genes sequenced only once, then they can choose from different apps in categories like ancestry, fitness, health, and nutrition and pay as they go. About a dozen companies are debuting apps on Helix today, and each app is designed to tell you something different about your genome. Some are more medically relevant, like those that estimate risk for inherited cholesterol and heart problems, test for food sensitivity, or check to see if you could pass a serious genetic condition on to your child. Only the apps people buy will have access to their personal information.

One company, Exploragen, says it can tell you about your sleep patterns—like whether you’re a morning person or a night owl—just by looking at your DNA (in case you needed help knowing that one). Another company, Dot One, will examine the tiny portion of your genes that makes you different from everyone else and print that unique code onto a customized fabric scarf (because, why not?).

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A third company, Insitome, has an ancestry app that will determine what percentage of your DNA you got from Neanderthals and what traits you inherited from them. Insitome CEO Spencer Wells says this initial app will cost $30.

Wells, who previously led the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, which mapped human migration throughout history by analyzing people’s DNA samples, says he likes the idea of Helix’s platform because it means that companies can develop additional apps as new scientific discoveries are made about the human genome.

Helix has also managed to attract major medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic and Mount Sinai Health System to develop apps for its store. Eventually, Thurston wants to offer hundreds of apps. He estimates the average customer will buy three to five apps each.

But having access to all these DNA apps might not be a good thing for consumers. Daniel MacArthur, a scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who studies the human genome, says there’s a danger associated with mixing medically serious tests, such as disease carrier testing, with a range of lifestyle, nutrition, and wellness tests that have little scientific evidence to support them.

“Promoting tests with little or no scientific backing runs the risk of inflating customer expectations and ultimately undermining consumer confidence in genuinely clinically useful genetic tests,” he says.

Direct-to-consumer genetic tests, including ones that claim to predict disease risk, are loosely regulated in the U.S. That worries Stephen Montgomery, a geneticist at Stanford University, who says the Helix platform creates a bigger opportunity for companies to develop products that don’t provide much value to people.

“Helix will have to think very carefully about what apps to allow on the platform,” he says. The average customer probably can’t discern which products are based on sound science from those that aren’t, so he hopes Helix will have some way of evaluating the quality of information the apps provide.

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