Part of the fun of 23AndMe's old personal genome spit test was the sheer number -- more than 240 -- of diseases, conditions and other hereditary traits that it covered. There was information about ear wax type, your tendency to like/dislike asparagus, the extent to which you can tolerate the sound of chewing -- and all sorts of other tweetable stuff.
Most everyone I know who took the test is smart enough to understand that the results did not amount to a diagnosis of anything. It was more about entertainment value.
The company's new, rebooted direct-to-consumer test, unveiled Wednesday, is a lot more... serious. And that's a good thing for the health space.
After the Food and Drug Administration slapped the company with a warning letter in 2013, it stopped marketing its health tests and began working with regulators to come up with a product that would meet its rigorous standards for consumer testing, validation and analysis.
The new service is priced at $199 -- more than double the $99 you had to shell out for the old -- while the number of tests is dramatically scaled back. That may sound like a negative, but the difference according to the company is in the quality of the reports 23andMe provides. They're clearer about what the tests do and do not say (even if some of the information provided is pretty technical).
23AndMe categorizes its new reports into four different areas: ancestry, wellness, traits, and carrier status. Ancestry includes your maternal and paternal lineage; wellness is about caffeine consumption, lactose digestion, facial flush and muscle composition; and traits -- well, that brings back a lot of the shareable stuff like facial features and taste preferences.
But the meat and potatoes of the new reports, at least for now until more tests are added back in to the mix, is about carrier status.
Carrier status include information about 36 diseases, including cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs and let you know if you carry a genetic variant that can be passed down to your children. Each of these conditions is explained in a series of documents on the 23andMe site that resemble a PowerPoint presentation, full of caveats and asterisks that contain notes like "About 1 in 5,200 samples may receive a Not Determined result. This can be caused by random test error or unexpected DNA sequences that interfere with the test."
If you're curious about why you like to eat what you eat, this type of disclaimer might be overkill, but when you're talking about genetic diseases that could be passed down to your baby these are critical details about the testing that you have a right to know.
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Anne Wojcicki said the company is continuing to work with the FDA to be able to add back many of the old tests that focus on genetic risk factors for your own health and pharmacogenetics in the near future. Here's what she had to say about where 23andMe is headed:
Q: What was it like working with the FDA for the past two years? The relationship started out kind of rocky. You've said that you were really taken aback by their warning letter.
I have to give a lot of credit to the FDA. The FDA has put a real concerted effort into working with us, coming regularly to the Bay Area, being very responsive. They work like dogs. I have been really impressed.
Q: How did you come to decide to focus on carrier status first in terms of the universe of health tests you used to offer?
Carrier status is one of the best understood concepts in genetics. It is clearly defined. The FDA understands cystic fibrosis testing, many consumers understand it, too, and so it seemed like a good place to start.
Q: But can't you get this type of testing for carrier status through your own doctor? How is the testing 23andMe offers any different?
I look at my own experience when I was thinking about having a child. I had to do two rounds of genetic testing and paid a few hundred dollars for each test through my doctor and insurer. But every insurance company is different and some are going to have rules and polices that say only allow people who are pregnant to get tested. What can people who want to do earlier family planning going to do? We are true to our mission that health care should be affordable and empower the consumer. We believe you should be able to get your own data and you should be able to own your own data.
Q: So how soon soon do you think we can expect to see more of the tests back?
I would love to be able to bring them back as soon as possible, but I can't say. There no timeline yet.
Q: 23andMe recently got a whole lot of money -- $115 million -- in additional funding, valuing the 23andMe at $1.1 billion according to Bloomberg. What are you planning on doing with all that money? What's are your grand plans for the company in the future now that the testing service is back on the market?
We want to be a leader in consumer health care. One of the biggest shortcomings of the health system is that the consumer doesn't have a strong voice. We are developing therapeutics and novel types of diagnostics for consumers that hopefully will be much more adaptive to a consumer's needs.
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