Personal gene scans: Vanity or science?

For the price of a good men's suit, a batch of new services will scan your genes and spot potential health risks, from cancer to lower back pain.

It's the business world's answer to a deluge of new genetic discoveries pouring forth from scientists' labs. Key investors in two of the companies, 23andMe and Navigenics, are among the biggest names in new technology.

But some analysts and investors wonder if consumers are ready to trust these start-ups when their own fine print warns against using their information to make serious medical decisions.

"I am a bit skeptical that many people are going to pay $1,000 for information that's not very useful just for entertainment value," said Douglas M. Fambrough, a biotech venture capitalist with Oxford Bioscience Partners in Boston.

"I would say that getting your whole genome sequenced is really at this point just a vanity exercise."

Most of these direct-to-consumer services don't actually scan all 3 billion letters of an individual's DNA — although Knome of Cambridge, Mass., will for $350,000. Many more will search for specific genes or clues to your family history for a few hundred dollars.

But some serious money has been invested in three companies that charge about $1,000 to $2,000 for an analysis of 500,000 to 2 million points where research suggests connections to specific health conditions.

To take the test, customers get simple kits for taking saliva samples that the companies then analyze. After a few weeks, customers can log into secure websites to view possible health risks embedded in their genes.

With that information in hand, patients have a powerful tool for homing in on potential medical problems before they show up, said Mari Baker, president and chief executive of Redwood Shores-based Navigenics.

"Our goal as a company is to improve health outcomes," said Baker. "This isn't about genetic curiosity."

When it launches in April, Navigenics will offer clients a scan of 2 million genetic markers, along with counseling from experts on how to interpret the results.

The Navigenics service costs $2,500 for the initial scan along with a year's worth of counseling and updates on the latest research. After the first year, customers can pay a $250 annual subscription fee for updates on new discoveries related to their own genes.

A disclaimer on Navigenics' website emphasizes that the company doesn't give medical advice. It warns customers not to make any health care decisions based on their genetic information without consulting a doctor.

In recent months, debate has swirled over whether patients will heed that caution. Even if they do, most physicians lack training in how to interpret unverified results from these almost wholly unregulated businesses.

A recent editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine urged doctors to advise skepticism about the companies' tests.

Research into genetic risk is still in its earliest stages, wrote the editorial's three authors — a prominent Harvard cancer prevention researcher, the head of genomic public health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the journal's editor-in-chief.

"For the patient asking whether these services provide information that is useful for disease avoidance," the authors wrote, "the prudent answer is 'Not now — ask again in a few years.'"

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