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Biotech Authors: Greg Wind

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Free genome scans - but what's the business model? [Genetic Future]

Misha Angrist points me to the launch of TruGenetics, which basically looks like just another genome scan company with a unique gimmick: they're giving 10,000 scans away free.

What's the business model here? The registration page provides some hints:

Your questionnaire responses and genetic information will be used for genetic research. One of the main goals of TruGenetics™ is to develop a unique research database for conducting genetic studies. Your decision to use TruGenetics'™ services indicates that you are willing to contribute your questionnaire responses and genetic information to the TruGenetics™ research database. [...] TruGenetics™ may conduct this research, or may partner with another organization, including non-profit and commercial entities, to conduct research. TruGenetics™ may charge a fee for conducting research using this database.


You will not benefit directly from contributing your information to the research database. However, important discoveries might be made through this research, and this might significantly help other people. If these discoveries are validated and accepted by the scientific community, we will provide you with this information as it pertains to your genes. This research may also lead to the development of a commercial product. You will not receive any payments if this occurs.

Looks to me as though the business model here is pretty much the same as 23andMe's fundamental strategy - recruit customers, get them to provide both genetic and phenotypic data, look for novel associations and then (the tricky step) figure out a way to monetise said associations by selling them on to pharma or biotech companies. The only difference is that TruGenetics is willing to absorb more of a loss than 23andMe in developing that potentially saleable resource.

Ten thousand individuals is enough to power a reasonable genome-wide association study (GWAS) for one complex trait, or 2-5 moderately-powered GWAS for much more simple traits (e.g. drug response). Ideally, customers would be recruited on the basis of falling into specific phenotype categories (e.g. disease cohorts and healthy controls), so it will be interesting to see if customers have to fill in their phenotype survey before they are given any guarantee of receiving a free scan.

The big question is what genetic markers you could possibly find with 10,000 people that won't be scooped up by academic GWAS consortiums before you can finish your analysis and submit your patent applications. You'd need to target a phenotype that was sufficiently medically relevant to be worth selling, but simultaneously sufficiently obscure to not be the target of massive GWAS already in the pipeline. 

Alternatively, perhaps the company is most interested in recruiting perfectly healthy individuals from specific populations to serve as a shared control group for disease-specific GWAS being performed by other groups; this could potentially be a fairly valuable resource. I'm speculating pretty wildly now, so I'll leave it there.

I've signed up, but I'll need to hear more details from the company before I commit to handing over my genetic and medical details. I'll let you all know when I do.

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