Recently, a DNA test appeared with a premise so far-fetched that its fate was profane and merciless ridicule. Soccer Genomics offers personalized, DNA-based training regimens to young players, and its goofy ad went viral amid internet outrage. It is, alas, only the most recent example of the growing field of sometimes-dubious lifestyle DNA tests.
“It’s a jungle out there,” says Eric Topol, a genomicist at the Scripps Research Institute. As DNA sequencing has gotten cheaper, a number of small companies have looked to fill niches around the two big consumer DNA-testing behemoths, 23andMe and AncestryDNA. These newer tests usually don’t offer disease-risk information, which would bring the scrutiny of the FDA, but they skirt the boundaries by focusing on nutrition and fitness. Sometimes, they just aim for fun, like a DNA test for wine preferences. I’ve likened these lifestyle tests to horoscopes—vague, occasionally informative, sometimes amusing.
Into this jungle now comes a new player with an impressive pedigree. Helix is a new venture from private equity firms and Illumina, the company that makes most of the DNA-sequencing machines in the United States. 23andMe and AncestryDNA use Illumina’s machines, as do most research labs. On Monday, after two years of anticipation since the initial announcement, Helix officially launched a marketplace for products based on DNA tests.
Helix has an innovative business model. Most DNA-testing companies only look for a set number of variants in DNA. Helix sequences all of the expressed genes in the body—a technique called whole-exome sequencing. This is very expensive, but Helix subsidizes most of the cost aside from one-time $80 sequencing fee. Then, it has third-party developers create products focused on specific genetic information. The…