23andMe's European vacation and other personal-genomics notes

(UPDATED: Added links from Davos. Also, an earlier version of this post originally appeared at the end ofWhile I’ve been diving into deCODEme’s surprisingly spotty personal-genomics service, 23andMe has been whooping it up in Europe. The startup launched its consumer gene-scanning service there and made a splash at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where it handed out 1,000 free saliva-collection kits to attendees and another 50 for “elite journalists.” (Google’s Sergei Brin — the husband of 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki — was even spotted wearing a badge reading “I spat!” at a small meeting of Google officials and reporters.)

This is all very clever PR for 23andMe, not to mention a cunning way to capitalize on the company’s close association with Google’s star power (Google is a 23andMe investor). And, to her credit, Wojcicki appears to be downplaying the usefulness of disease-risk prediction at this point, noting correctly that the underlying science is still awfully preliminary in most cases. Still, at the moment it’s impossible to really assess 23andMe’s offering unless you pony up $999 or luck into one of their free kits, as the company is still just “thinking” about making a reference genotype available to the public at large, according to one of its PR reps.

Meanwhile, another startup is getting into the personal-genomics game. SeqWright, a Houston company that until now has focused on contract genome-sequencing for research labs and drug companies, launched its Genetic Profiling Service for exactly $1 less than what 23andMe is charging — $998. From the outside, it’s impossible to tell how SeqWright expects to distinguish itself from its better-known competitor, although there’s something just a bit forlorn about the company’s attempts to play up its credentials. Witness, for instance, this, from a section of the Web site the startup calls “Why SeqWright”:

Personal Genomics may be a new field but, we have been utilizing the microarray technology, which makes it possible, for nearly three years.

Wow, three whole years? Microarrays — colloquially known as “gene chips” — have been used for genomic analysis for well over a decade.

Also, I can’t help noting that Navigenics, which at last notice was supposed to be launching its own health-oriented personal-genomics service earlier this year, has been awfully quiet recently.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis spits and tells at Davos, and a blogger for the NYT weighs in as well.

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