A woman does a DNA test with a cotton swab at home.

(© Nataliya/Adobe)

Leading direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies are continuously unveiling novel ways to leverage their vast stores of genetic data.

"23andMe will tell you what diseases you have and then sell you the drugs to treat them."

As reported last week, 23andMe's latest concept is to develop and license new drugs using the data of consumers who have opted in to let their information be used for research. To date, over 10 million people have used the service and around 80 percent have opted in, making its database one of the largest in the world.

Culture researcher Dr. Julia Creet is one of the foremost experts on the DTC genetic testing industry, and in her forthcoming book, The Genealogical Sublime, she bluntly examines whether such companies' motives and interests are in sync with those of consumers.

Leapsmag caught up with Creet about the latest news and the wider industry's implications for health and privacy.

23andMe has just announced that it plans to license a newly developed anti-inflammatory drug, the first one created using its customers' genetic data, to Almirall, a pharma company in Spain. What's your take?

I think this development is the next step in the evolution of the company and its "double-sided" marketing model. In the past, as it enticed customers to give it their DNA, it sold the results and the medical information divulged by customers to other drug companies. Now it is positioning itself to reap the profits of a new model by developing treatments itself.

Given that there are many anti-inflammatory drugs on the market already, whatever Almirall produces might not have much of an impact. We might see this canny move as a "proof of concept," that 23andMe has learned how to "leverage" its genetic data without having to sell them to a third party. In a way, the privacy provisions will be much less complicated, and the company stands to attract investment as it turns itself into [a pseudo pharmaceutical company], a "pharma-psuedocal" company.

Emily Drabant Conley, the president of business development, has said that 23andMe is pursuing other drug compounds and may conduct their own clinical trials rather than licensing them out to their existing research partners. The end goal, it seems, is to make direct-to-consumer DNA testing to drug production and sales back to that same consumer base a seamless and lucrative circle. You have to admit it's a brilliant business model. 23andMe will tell you what diseases you have and then sell you the drugs to treat them.

In your new book, you describe how DTC genetic testing companies have capitalized on our innate human desire to connect with or ancestors and each other. I quote you: "This industry has taken that potent, spiritual, all-too-human need to belong... and monetized it in a particularly exploitative way." But others argue that DTC genetic testing companies are merely providing a service in exchange for fair-market compensation. So where does exploitation come into the picture?

Yes, the industry provides a fee for service, but that's only part of the story. The rest of the story reveals a pernicious industry that hides its business model behind the larger science project of health and heredity. All of the major testing companies play on the idea of "lack," that we can't know who we are unless we buy information about ourselves. When you really think about it, "Who do you think you are?" is a pernicious question that suggests that we don't or can't know who we or to whom we are related without advanced data searches and testing. This existential question used to be a philosophical question; now the answers are provided by databases that acquire more valuable information than they provide in the exchange.

"It's a brilliant business model that exploits consumer naiveté."

As you've said before, consumers are actually paying to be the product because the companies are likely to profit more from selling their genetic data. Could you elaborate?

The largest databases, AncestryDNA and 23andMe, have signed lucrative agreements with biotech companies that pay them for the de-identified data of their customers. What's so valuable is the DNA combined with the family relationships. Consumers provide the family relationships and the companies link and extrapolate the results to larger and larger family trees. Combined with the genetic markers for certain diseases, or increased susceptibility to certain diseases, these databases are very valuable for biotech research.

None of that value will ever be returned to consumers except in the form of for-profit drugs. Ancestry, in particular, has removed all information about its "research partners" from its website, making it very difficult to see how it is profiting from its third-party sales. 23andMe is more open about its "two-sided business model," but encourages consumers to donate their information to science. It's a brilliant business model that exploits consumer naiveté.

A WIRED journalist wrote that "23andMe has been sharing insights gleaned from consented customer data with GSK and at least six other pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms for the past three and a half years." Is this a consumer privacy risk?

I don't see that 23andMe did anything to which consumers didn't consent, albeit through arguably unreadable terms and conditions. The part that worries me more is the 300 phenotype data points that the company has collected on its consumers through longitudinal surveys designed, as Anne Wojcicki, CEO and Co-founder of 23andMe, put it, "to circumvent medical records and just self-report."

Everyone is focused on the DNA, but it's the combination of genetic samples, genealogical information and health records that is the most potent dataset, and 23andMe has figured out a way to extract all three from consumers.

Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup
Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup is a Doctor of Health Science, author, and scholar on ethical, legal, and social issues around the use and processing of consumer-generated health and genetics data.
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Precision Medicine concept

(© xb100 / Fotolia)

Is the value of "personalized medicine" over-promised? Why is the quality of health care declining for many people despite the pace of innovation? Do patients and doctors have conflicting priorities? What is the best path forward?

"How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?"

Some of the country's leading medical experts recently debated these questions at the prestigious annual Personalized Medicine Conference, held at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and LeapsMag was there to bring you the inside scoop.

Personalized Medicine: Is It Living Up to the Hype?

The buzzworthy phrase "personalized medicine" has been touted for years as the way of the future—customizing care to patients based on their predicted responses to treatments given their individual genetic profiles or other analyses. Since the initial sequencing of the human genome around fifteen years ago, the field of genomics has exploded as the costs have dramatically come down – from $2.7 billion to $1000 or less today. Given cheap access to such crucial information, the medical field has been eager to embrace an ultramodern world in which preventing illnesses is status quo, and treatments can be tailored for maximum effectiveness. But whether that world has finally arrived remains debatable.

"I've been portrayed as an advocate for genomics, because I'm excited about it," said Robert C. Green, Director of the Genomes2People Research Program at Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. He qualified his advocacy by saying that he tries to remain 'equipoised' or balanced in his opinions about the future of personalized medicine, and expressed skepticism about some aspects of its rapid commercialization.

"I have strong feelings about some of the [precision medicine] products that are rushing out to market in both the physician-mediated space and the consumer space," Green said, and challenged the value and sustainability of these products, such as their clinical utility and ability to help produce favorable health outcomes. He asked what most patients and providers want to know, which is, "What are the medical, behavioral, and economic outcomes? How do we generate evidence for value, which is what everyone is asking for?" He later questioned whether the use of 'sexy' and expensive diagnostic technologies is necessarily better than doing things the old-fashioned way. For instance, it is much easier and cheaper to ask a patient directly about their family history of disease, instead of spending thousands of dollars to obtain the same information with pricey diagnostic tests.

"Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health...to catch disease when it occurs early."

Michael Snyder, Professor & Chair of the Department of Genetics and Director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, called himself more of an 'enthusiast' about precision medicine products like wearable devices that can digitally track vital signs, including heart rate and blood oxygen levels. "I'm certainly not equipoised," he said, adding, "Our mantra is to try to do data-driven health. We are using this to try to understand health and catch disease when it occurs early."

Snyder then shared his personal account about how his own wearable device alerted him to seek treatment while he was traveling in Norway. "My blood oxygen was low and my heart rate was high, so that told me something was up," he shared. After seeing a doctor, he discovered he was suffering from Lyme disease. He then shared other similar success stories about some of the patients in his department. Using wearable health sensors, he said, could significantly reduce health care costs: "$245 billion is spent every year on diabetes, and if we reduce that by ten percent we just saved $24 billion."

From left, Robert Green, Michael Snyder, Sandro Galea, and Thomas Miller.

(Courtesy Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup)

A Core Reality: Unresolved Societal Issues

Sandro Galea, Dean and Professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, coined himself as a 'skeptic' but also an 'enormous fan' of new technologies. He said, "I want to make sure that you all [the audience] have the best possible treatment for me when I get sick," but added, "In our rush and enthusiasm to embrace personalized and precision medicine approaches, we have done that at the peril of forgetting a lot of core realities."

"There's no one to pay for health care but all of us."

Galea stressed the need to first address certain difficult societal issues because failing to do so will deter precision medicine cures in the future. "Unless we pay attention to domestic violence, housing, racism, poor access to care, and poverty… we are all going to lose," he said. Then he quoted recent statistics about the country's growing gap in both health and wealth, which could potentially erode patient and provider interest in personalized medicine.

Thomas Miller, the founder and partner of a venture capital firm dedicated to advancing precision medicine, agreed with Galea and said that "there's no one to pay for health care but all of us." He recalled witnessing 'abuse' of diagnostic technologies that he had previously invested in. "They were often used as mechanisms to provide unnecessary care rather than appropriate care," he said. "The trend over my 30-year professional career has been that of sensitivity over specificity."

In other words: doctors rely too heavily on diagnostic tools that are sensitive enough to detect signs of a disease, but not accurate enough to confirm the presence of a specific disease. "You will always find that you're sick from something," Miller said. He lamented the counter-productivity and waste brought on by such 'abuse' and added, "That's money that could be used to address some of the problems that you [Galea] just talked about."

Do Patients and Providers Have Conflicting Priorities?

Distrust in the modern health care system is not new in the United States. That fact that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in 2016 may have fueled this mistrust even more. And the level of mistrust appears correlated with race; a recent survey of 118 adults between 18 to 75 years old showed that black respondents were less likely to trust their doctors than the non-Hispanic white respondents. The black respondents were also more concerned about personal privacy and potentially harmful hospital experimentation.

"The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick."

As if this context weren't troubling enough, some of the panelists suggested that health care providers and patients have misaligned goals, which may be financially driven.

For instance, Galea stated that health care is currently 'curative' even though that money is better spent on prevention versus cures. "The vast majority of physicians in this country are incentivized to keep you sick," he declared. "They are paid by sick patient visits. Hospital CEOs are paid by the number of sick people they have in their beds." He highlighted this issue as a national priority and mentioned some case studies showing that the behaviors of hospital CEOs quickly change when payment is based on the number of patients in beds versus the number of patients being kept out of the beds. Green lauded Galea's comment as "good sense."

Green also cautioned the audience about potential financial conflicts of interest held by proponents of precision medicine technologies. "Many of the people who are promoting genomics and personalized medicine are people who have financial interests in that arena," he warned. He emphasized that those who are perhaps curbing the over-enthusiasm do not have financial interests at stake.

What is the Best Path Forward for Personalized Medicine?

As useful as personalized medicine may be for selecting the best course of treatment, there is also the flip side: It can allow doctors to predict who will not respond well—and this painful reality must be acknowledged.

Miller argued, "We have a duty to call out therapies that won't work, that will not heal, that need to be avoided, and that will ultimately lead to you saying to a patient, 'There is nothing for you that will work.'"

Although that may sound harsh, it captures the essence of this emerging paradigm, which is to maximize health by using tailored methods that are based on comparative effectiveness, evidence of outcomes, and patient preferences. After all, as Miller pointed out, it wouldn't do much good to prescribe someone a regimen with little reason to think it might help.

For the hype around personalized medicine to be fully realized, Green concluded, "We have to prove to people that [the value of it] is true."

Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup
Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup is a Doctor of Health Science, author, and scholar on ethical, legal, and social issues around the use and processing of consumer-generated health and genetics data.