Watch for Falling Prices

Posted by Osagie Obasogie September 15, 2008
Biopolitical Times
Google-backed startup 23andme has slashed prices for its genome scanning service in what appears to be an attempt to boost sales of a luxury item in the midst of an economic downturn. Compared to its competitors who charge over $1000 to scan a sample of genes in order to tell customers something about diseases or other traits they may be predisposed to, 23andme's new $399 price tag is a blue light special that is sure to heighten competition in the market for personal genomic services.

At the other end of the price spectrum, Cambridge-based Knowme has broken another barrier in the personal genomics market by being the first to offer full genome sequencing to any customer with $350,000 burning a hole in their pocket. Knowme's service is different in that it looks at almost all of the three billion base pairs that comprise a person's genome; companies like 23andme only sequence a fraction of this. And, some are already speculating that such full genome scans are the future of personal genomics whereby pricing is the only impediment.

Many people take the price reduction of partial genome scans and the first feasible availability of full genome sequencing as yet another marvelous example of innovation and the free market working wonders to improve our lives. But David P. Hamilton over at Bnet Business Network has a different take. Focusing on 23andme's price cut, Hamilton argues that it might actually signal the end of commercial personal genomics, not its "democratization" as 23andme argues. Hamilton points out that the problem is the business model:
The main point to remember is that personal-genomics companies don't intend to make money by selling the tests. Instead, their business generally depends on amassing a giant anonymized database of customer genetic information that can be mined for research studies by academic researchers or drug companies.
With many non-profit research centers already engaged in genome scanning, Hamilton goes on to note:
the real threat is that cheap SNP scanning will undermine the very research studies that companies like 23andMe and Navigenics planned to make their bread and butter. . . . Once reputable medical institutes get into the genomics-research game in a big way, research scientists aren't going to pay out significant fractions of their grants to get access to a commercial database when noncommercial databases - quite likely of higher quality - are more readily accessible.
It remains to be seen whether full genome scanning services like Knowme will face similar pressures. Nevertheless, the various commercial and research factors surrounding this race for cheap genomic sequencing highlights how we should look at the concerns raised by the personal genomics industry not simply as consumers, but as research subjects.