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Pathway Genomics: the New Kid

Another contender in the consumer genomics game.

By Kevin Davies

September 15, 2009
| Twenty months after the debut of consumer genomics pioneers 23andMe and deCODEme, San Diego-based Pathway Genomics has launched its own comprehensive direct-to-consumer (DTC) genotyping service. Company founder and CEO James Plante says Pathway offers several key advantages over its competitors, including the depth, speed, and security of the genotyping analysis on offer.

Plante, a serial entrepreneur, became proactive about his own health when his father was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. He later died from organ transplant complications. “That was a wakeup call for me,” said Plante. “I wanted to find a way for consumers to have access to genetic information at a low cost.”

In 2008, Plante felt the time was right, the technology mature enough, to launch. He had little trouble raising capital, tapping investors in his previous start-up, including The Founders Fund, Edelson Technology Partners, and Western Technology Investment. “It’s a great time to build a new company, particularly in San Diego, where we have depth of expertise in genetics, Illumina down the street, and pretty much everything we need within a few miles,” said Plante.

Plante isn’t daunted by the head start 23andMe, Navigenics and deCODE have enjoyed. “It takes a while usually for the major issues to get sorted out, before any new company starts to gather any meaningful new market share,” said Plante. “We don’t really believe that the folks that started 18 months ago have any significant market share yet,” Plante continued. “We believe the timing is absolutely right for this.”

Pathway’s chief scientific officer is geneticist David Becker, formerly with TorreyPines Therapeutics. “I saw this as a great opportunity to take on one of the biggest challenges in this time of genomics—trying to translate this information into something that’s useful… in a way that consumers or doctors can act on,” said Becker.

Pathway’s custom-designed, 10,000-square-feet CLIA-certified lab currently houses genotyping platforms from Illumina, Affymetrix, and Sequenom. Pathway vows to be technology agnostic, adopting whichever platforms provide the most value at the lowest cost.

“We can quickly adjust the technology we’re using to be competitive, whether it’s to have a broader offering, a better price, or whatever we feel is the important issue to provide a better product to the customer,” said Becker, who stresses the secure environment offered by the lab. “We do all the processing here; we do all the genotyping here; we do all the data analysis here,” said Becker.

DNA samples from early adopters will be assayed on one disease-focused custom chip, which will supply information on complex diseases, carrier status for rare diseases, and pharmacogenetics markers. In addition, there will be “probably the most extensive SNP-based ancestry test that’s available.” Becker says there are plans to offer tests on the Affymetrix and Sequenom platforms as well.

Becker oversees an editorial team to review criteria from the latest peer-reviewed genome association studies. That team includes Victoria Magnuson, who trained with Francis Collins and John Todd and is an expert in type 2 diabetes genetics. A white paper will be published describing Pathway’s criteria. “We’ve tried to be pretty conservative as to what is acceptable, validated research versus preliminary research markers,” he said.

Retail Therapy
Pathway’s Health Test retails for $249, while the Ancestry Kit is $199. Ordered together, the price is $348, making it the least expensive full-genome consumer genomics test currently on the market. “The conditions we have on the list are things people are most concerned about,” said Becker, but with particular emphasis on rare disorders, carrier status, and pharmacogenetics.

Similar to Navigenics, Pathway features a full-time team of genetic counselors on staff, headed by Linda Wasserman, who formerly directed the UCSD clinical molecular genetics facility. However, there will be an extra fee for the counseling service because Pathway is pricing the genotyping chip so inexpensively. But that’s an optional extra. “We think we can trust people with the genetic information. It’s important to give them the full picture,” says Becker.

Becker continued: “Obviously we’d love to just give everyone their full genome sequence, and tell them about every little detail. At this point, that’s not really feasible. But we think people will be interested to know everything they possibly can about their overall health and that could motivate them to take action...” Plante also notes that Pathway Genomics will be a partner, like the other consumer genomics companies, for Illumina’s new whole-genome sequencing service.

Becker said that reviewing his own data (as a beta tester) had motivated him to improve his own lifestyle in some respects, but he is trying to keep the genetics in perspective. “I have a 100% chance of dying,” said Becker. “I’m not really going to fret over a few percent increase in risk over one thing or another!”

This article also appeared in the September-October 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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