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DNA Dash: Tech advances lead to reduced costs, spike in genetic testing

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It’s never been easier or cheaper to learn about one’s genetic makeup. Direct-to-consumer DNA testing is making the space accessible to consumers, as the industry explodes in popularity.

In 2016, 2.6 million people participated in genetic testing with consumer companies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, the volume rose to over 12 million.

The first genetic tests made directly available to consumers was more than two decades ago. In recent years, national players 23andMe, AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA use an e-commerce platform to bring these tests to the masses.

Springfield-based genetic testing facility Dynamic DNA Laboratories LLC opened in 2015 at the start of the industry boom.

Founder and CEO Austin O’Reilly said in the early days, the lab processed five samples a week. Today, O’Reilly said it’s 500-plus weekly samples represent revenue growth of over 600 percent in the past four years, though he declined to disclose revenues.

“For a long time, genetic testing was in the realm of the very complicated. It was a very unapproachable field,” said Dynamic DNA lab manager Rhy Norton. “Recent advances in genetic testing technology have increased the amount of data that we can get, and we’re able to deliver it at a much lower cost. That is kind of the main reason behind this explosion of genetic testing that we’ve seen.”

Dynamic DNA sells nutrition, fitness, skin and ancestry tests for $149 each. Consumers provide a cheek swab, and within two to three weeks, they receive a personalized report via the company’s newly launched online client portal, Norton said, which helps users make sense of the data.

Tech advances
The technology that enables this testing began with the Human Genome Project, Norton said, which concluded in 2003. It was a 13-year, $3 billion effort to sequence the human genome.

Today, Dynamic DNA uses a flat disk the size of a microscope slide, called a DNA microarray kit, to analyze most of its DNA samples.

“There’s about a billion tiny beads on that and each one can report on one base or one letter on the human genetic code,” Norton said. “We can now sequence a couple genomes with an instrument smaller than an oven on a lab bench. It’s been this dramatic shift in technology.”

A decade ago, the cost of sequencing a whole genome was estimated at $10 million, according to data from the National Human Genome Research Institute. By late 2015, the cost fell below $1,500.

Dr. Amanda Brodeur, associate professor in the Biomedical Sciences Department at Missouri State University, said technological advancements have significantly grown even since her 2011 completion of a medical genetics residency at the University of Missouri.

“We’re able to do high through-put testing, where we can look at larger segments of DNA in multiple patients, in an automated and more quick procedure,” she said of one of the advancements driving down costs. “Interpretation is also improving, as we add to our data, it makes understanding the changes easier and quicker to identify in some cases.”

Brodeur said ancestry testing is the most popular across the market, but noted that medical testing should be done in connection with an expert.

“The testing companies need to keep medical professionals and patients all working together on this issue, so that if a patient gets a test result, they take it to the health provider and make an informed decision,” she said.

Norton said providing actionable, vetted advice to consumers is at the core of Dynamic DNA’s model, adding he works with nutritionists and local trainers, for instance, to interpret data.

Bringing DNA to market
Dynamic DNA began with an e-commerce model, but in June it started providing its tests in brick-and-mortar store MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC.

“These DNA tests are becoming more prominent and popular and people want to know more about their DNA so they know what’s best for their skin, what’s best for their diet,” said Crystal Dwiggins, an employee in MaMa Jean’s body care department.

The grocer sells kits to customers for $30 apiece, with the customer paying the remaining $120 to Dynamic DNA when the DNA sample is provided.

Dwiggins said sales have had a slow start, with roughly 20 nutrition and skin kits sold since June.

Dynamic DNA also has partnered with a few local businesses, such as BKD LLP and O’Reilly Automotive Inc., to provide discounts on the tests to employees through corporate wellness programs, according to company spokespeople.

In the next few weeks, the company will roll out a partnership with Acacia Spa LLC, said co-owner Allyson Kennedy.

“We do a lot of customizing at Acacia to begin with, we’re known for our skin care. Let’s take this to the next level and see if there’s anything we’re missing,” she said of the DNA kits.

Kennedy said the testing would shed light on clients’ skin texture, elasticity, risk for stretch marks and collagen degradation. Acacia’s team will analyze genetic results to provide tailored recommendations.

“You can take the test, but you have to know what to do with the answers,” she said.

Ethical dilemmas
Arguably the largest national player, 23andMe, offers ancestry testing, as well as testing for genetic health risks, like select variants for breast and ovarian cancer. 23andMe just last month gained U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to screen for these gene-based risk factors, at the concern of some in the medical community.

“Some of the more diagnostic tests, in my opinion, should be limited to use in the health care setting so that patients can understand the results and the risks that come with them and can receive the appropriate follow up and interventions,” said Brodeur.

The validity of the testing by business-to-consumer companies also has been called into question related to the ethical dilemmas regarding how data is stored and who can receive the information. For instance, a Feb. 1 Wall Street Journal headline read, “Two Sisters Bought DNA Kits. The Results Blew Apart Their Family” and an editorial published on the same day by The New York Times titled “Why You Should Be Careful About 23andMe’s Health Test.”

Brodeur said not all genetic tests are created equal, and the sharing of genetic information varies from company to company.

For instance, Norton said 23andMe uses autosomal genetic testing on its ancestry kits, compared with Dynamic DNA offering haplogroup results, which defines groups of people who share a common ancestor by their genetic data. 

“The consumer really needs to do their due diligence and read the fine print,” said Jen Denson, a Dynamic DNA scientist.

In early February, FamilyTreeDNA disclosed it shares genetic information with the FBI upon request. There have been similar controversies with other companies, she said. The infamous Golden State Killer was identified and found after decades following genetic testing of a relative.

In regard to privacy, Dynamic DNA does not store, sell or share genetic information, Denson said.

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