Personal 'genome scans' have been in the news again, not because they are a particularly new phenomenon but because the data they provide may soon take on a new significance. Up until now, genetic tests looking for variations associated with diseases have been available over the Internet for those who have been willing to pay the fee - usually a few hundred dollars.
Now, US company 23andMe has just launched a new home DNA test for $99 that is being marketed as part of a 'Research Revolution'. The key difference between this DNA test and others is that it is only available to participants who allow both the genetic data collected and the health data they report to be used by researchers investigating the occurrence of different diseases. However, 23andMe are not the first company to use this new approach to DNA testing, as last month TruGenetics, a Seattle based company, launched a test where the first 10,000 participants to sign up got DNA tests for free.
The two companies are using different business models, as TruGenetics has suggested that it hopes to be able to collect enough data to charge researchers access to their database. Alternatively, 23andMe have talked about the possibility of charging a fee for introducing researchers to the volunteers. Both of their models rely on the successful rate at which they can recruit volunteers to donate the necessary information.
When accessing the 23andMe site the drive for participants is evident and 'The Race to 1000' encourages volunteers to provide information on both an altruistic and self interested level. A list of 10 diseases, headed by migraines, has a tally on how many more migraine sufferers must participate before the research can begin.
Companies providing tests of this type have been criticised for offering the service prematurely, since much remains to be discovered about the genetic influences on common diseases. It has also been suggested that they would be more profitable if they collected data, rather than selling DNA tests. But there are still questions regarding the reliability of the health data and the number of volunteers needed to make the resource a viable alternative. However, these movements suggest that companies such as 23andMe could pioneer a shift in the methods and models used to collect data for genetic research.