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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Human Genetics is Now a Viable Hobby

By Aaron Rowe Email


Personalized genomics just got a lot more accessible. Until tonight, the cheapest whole genome scan was available for just under a thousand dollars. Thanks to improvements in microarray technology, 23andMe has been able to cut that cost by more than half -- to $399 -- well within the reach of cash-strapped grad students, frugal genealogy buffs, and other not-so-early adopters.

“By taking advantage of continuing innovation we are able to introduce a new chip that will give people more relevant data at a lower price,” said Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe. ”We are excited that we are opening doors for more people to learn about their health and ancestry and for more people to be able to participate in advancing research. It is important to democratize personal genetics and make it more accessible."

On The Spittoon blog, Wojcicki mentioned that her company has also implemented a major technology upgrade. Among other things, their new chip can check people for a condition that makes taking some drugs extremely dangerous. If you are G6PD deficient, and unwittingly take the malaria drug primaquine, you'll have a horrible reaction that may include hemolytic anemia and death.

By checking your genetic makeup before taking a new medication, you might be able to avoid that sort of nasty situation. In other words, the new test could give you a lifesaving warning.

Predicting how someone will respond to a drug before they ever take it, just by looking at their genes, is called pharmacogenetics. It is a rather new field, and not ready for prime time yet, but I have a feeling that services like the one offered by 23andMe will greatly accelerate its development.

At some point 23andMe will start asking its clients how well they respond to particular drugs. By relating that information to their customer's genetic data, the small company's researchers may be able to identify new pharmacogenetic markers -- genes that indicate how someone will react to a medication.