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Al Gore at Navigenics Launch

New personal genomics service debuts in New York.

By Kevin Davies

May 12, 2008 | NEW YORK – With apologies to fans of Maury Povich and Connie Chung, former Vice President Al Gore’s surprise appearance was undoubtedly the highlight of the SoHo reception last month that marked the official launch of Navigenics’ new personal genomics service.

Gore told the 150 assembled executives, scientists, investors, and other guests celebrating the public release of Navigenics’ Health Compass that he had both personal and professional ties to the company.

Last November, Gore became a partner with Kleiner Perkins, the venerable Bay Area venture capital firm that is the lead investor in the company. He also called co-founder David Agus, director of the Spielberg Family Center for Applied Proteomics in Los Angeles (and Povich’s son-in-law), “a long time friend,” and “a genius in oncology, and a miracle worker.”

“This is a great firm,” Gore said in his brief impromptu remarks. “In my opinion, they’ve got the ethics and the culture and the values right,” Gore continued. “On all these new genetic breakthroughs, there is always some resistance culturally, and then, when there’s an evaluation of the inherent value, if the ethics are right, if the surrounding culture is right, then it just breaks through. I think this company [Navigenics] has the culture right… and I think it’s going to be a fantastic success.”

“The time is right,” said Mari Baker, Navigenics CEO, for “a change in health care in this country.” She said the cost of doing a genetic scan has finally reached the point that services can be offered to consumers. “Our team has gone through the literature, found enough conditions that meet our stringent criteria, to give people valuable data that they can use tomorrow to improve their health,” said Baker.

SNP Screen
Using Affymetrix 6.0 microarrays and its Clinical Laboratories Improvement Act-certified facilities, Navigenics scans customer DNA samples for gene alternations, or SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that are known to be associated with common diseases. Among the first 18 conditions for which Navigenics provides personalized information are Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Navigenics is not offering information about ancestry, genome comparison tools, or information on so-called “non-actionable” conditions such as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Rather, the focus is squarely on using personal genetic data to calculate an individual’s projected lifetime risk for a particular condition. The company has genetic counselors on staff available for individual client consultations. Navigenics has also partnered with MedScape to begin educating physicians about the complexities and possibilities of personal genomics.

Agus joined fellow co-founder Dietrich Stephan, and board members John Doerr and Brook Byers in a panel discussion, the first in a series of events to raise the company’s profile among the medical community and general public. The discussion included candid comments from Agus about the effectiveness of the Health Compass. He noted that one early beta tester was prompted to take an early colonoscopy based on her Health Compass results, which subsequently revealed a 1.5-cm polyp.

But Agus also admitted that his own genetic scan has served as a wake-up call. Whereas the average lifetime risk for U.S. males is around 40%, Agus revealed that, “I had an 82% chance of getting a heart attack, and I had normal cholesterol. So based on that, I’m on Lipitor, I exercise … and I’m reducing my risk. But that 82% hit home.”

Navigenics offered its $2500 saliva kits for sale at the event — with one notable disclaimer. A notice next to the kits said that residents of New York State might have to wait for their results, pending approval from the state’s Department of Health, which is required to authorize genetic testing facilities. 


This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine. 
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