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(UPDATED: See below.)
So at long last, one of the personal-genomics companies we’ve been writing about since May has finally launched its service. Navigenics, the Redwood City, Calif., startup that promises users a “personalized genetics analysis” so they can better manage their health risks, kicked off its business yesterday with a drum-rolling press release and a story clearly handed to the WSJ. (For a non-subscription version, click here.)
Except that, as it turns out, Navigenics hasn’t really launched anything. Yes, the company announced that it’s raised a second round of funding, for a total of more than $25 million — more on that below, including the fact that I’m told Google has also quietly invested in Navigenics — but neither its release nor its Web site provide any details on what its genetic-testing service will look like, what it will cost, or how individuals can order it. According to Amy DuRoss, the company’s head of business affairs, Navigenics won’t actually start offering genetic-test results until the first quarter of next year, so if you were hoping to jump on the personal genomics bandwagon now, you’d better brace yourself for disappointment.
What Navigenics is doing, according to DuRoss, is taking pre-orders for the testing service, which will essentially scan your genome for individual DNA “letters” (technically, nucleotides or base pairs) that differ from those in established “reference” genomes. Scanning several million of these single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, should give you a shorthand read of your individual genetic variation. Studies of SNPs and how they differ in people prone to one disease or another are starting to roll out with great regularity, providing for the first time a solid scientific basis for linking your particular genetic profile to disease risk.
Navigenics, however, doesn’t plan to give you full access to that readout. Instead, as I noted earlier, the company will store your gene profile and then provide you with carefully limited information that essentially amounts to particular genetic tests that it believes have been medically validated. Even then, it will only offer them for conditions that can be treated or prevented. (In other words, you probably shouldn’t count on learning whether you have Huntington’s disease here.) Over time, as more of these genetic variations are linked to disease risk, Navigenics will tell you how your genome stacks up.
All this comes at a cost, and while it’s nowhere near as expensive as it earlier sounded like it might be, it’s still not remotely cheap. Pricing still isn’t final, but the company’s DuRoss says an initial registration fee will run around $2,500 and will cover a year of the Navigenics service. Additional years will probably be priced at around $250. That makes Navigenics’ offering substantially more expensive, at least in the short run, than most individual genetic tests you can order directly from companies like DNAdirect. (The main exception is the breast-cancer test for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene variants, which can cost upward of $3,000 thanks to the extortionate price charged by the patent holder, Myriad Genetics. No word yet on how Navigenics plans to finesse that fee, or whether it thinks it can sidestep it.)
DuRoss says Navigenics will initially offer about 20 tests, although if you’re curious which ones those will be — well, you’ll just have to wait. It’s not even exactly clear how the company will begin to take “pre-orders” for the service, given that the Web site still doesn’t feature any information on the subject beyond an email link through which people can request more information.
By the way, DuRoss also says that Navigenics doesn’t plan to lock away your genetic information, as I earlier suggested. Supposedly the company will supply “raw” genetic data to individuals upon request, although exactly how and in what format it might do so wasn’t entirely clear from our conversation. (DuRoss talked about the raw data as a dump equivalent to 2,000 printed pages, which isn’t a particularly useful way of thinking about it.) It still sounds to me as if Navigenics is counting on locking its customers into its service as much as possible, although over time, perhaps it will be possible to transfer your genome scan to another service. A lot will depend on the details of how all this gets implemented, and as you have probably gathered by now, most of those still simply aren’t available.
In other words, it still sounds a lot more like corporate genomics than personal genomics to me. Personally, I’m not that excited about a service that’s going to decide when and how to dole out my own genetic information to me in the form of limited genetic tests. That sort of approach made perfect sense when it simply wasn’t possible to economically look at more than a handful of genes at a time, but since that’s no longer the case, I don’t really see any excuse for a company planning take in these sorts of sums from customers to arrogate to itself what parts of my genome I’m entitled to look at. This makes me all the more curious to see what sort of tack the much buzzier 23andMe (see links to our previous coverage here) ends up taking on this front.
Speaking of 23andMe, the Google-backed startup now may launch its similar personal-genomics service — one combining both disease and genealogical information — by the end of the year, according to the WSJ. Although 23andMe has been quieter than Navigenics, its profile has been higher because of the Google involvement and because its co-founder Anne Wojcicki is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
Recently, though, an individual familiar with the deal told me that Google has also quietly invested in Navigenics, although neither company will comment. That would make sense given that Navigenics also just lined up another 23andMe investor, Mohr Davidow Ventures, for its second funding round. (Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers and Sequoia Capital also participated.) Earlier this year, it looked like 23andMe and Navigenics were linking up powerful backers for a horse race; now, though, I’m starting to suspect that a lot of investors are simply hedging their bets — Google, apparently, among them.
UPDATED: Added another several paragraphs and the rumor on Google’s investment in Navigenics.
UPDATE REDUX: Upgraded sourcing on the Google info, which comes from someone with first-hand knowledge of the deal. Of course, no one is officially confirming it yet.