WIKIMEDIA, CHEMICAL HERITAGE FOUNDATIONPersonal genomics on the cheap may soon be coming to some customers of South African health insurance provider Discovery Health. For $250, half of which would be covered by the insurer, Discovery clients will be able to have their entire genome sequenced by Human Longevity Inc., which genomics pioneer Craig Venter cofounded last year. The deal between Discovery and Human Longevity marks the first agreement struck between an insurer and a personal genomics company aimed at offering wide access to genetic information. Discovery insures approximately 4 million people in South Africa and the U.K.
Human Longevity will share the genetic information it gathers—which will come from 20,000 genes, including BRCA1/2 and key colon cancer and heart disease genes—with patients’ doctors or genetic counselors rather than with individuals. According to Venter, his firm will also keep a deidentified copy of each participant’s genetic information along with access to their medical and insurance records. “I hope that we get a real breakthrough in the field of personalized wellness,” Jonathan Broomberg, chief executive of Discovery Health, told MIT Technology Review. “My fear would be that people are afraid of this and don’t want the information—or that even at this price point, it’s still too expensive. But we’re optimistic.”
Optimistic though he may be, Broomberg told the Financial Times that even though laws in the U.K. and South Africa (among other countries) prohibit genetic discrimination, the service his company is offering could have untoward consequences. “Clients should be aware that the information may impact on their insurability in future,” he said. “We cannot guarantee that it will have no impact.”
The move is part of Human Longevity’s push to sequence one million genomes within four years, a goal that may help researchers better understand how human genes influence a variety of phenotypes, from disease risk to eye color. Starting next month, HLI will also offer a $250,000 “health nucleus service” that includes a full genomic analysis, a gut microbiome sequence, full-body MRI scans, and other tests. Information from people able to pay that hefty price would also be entered into Human Longevity’s database.
“[Human Longevity] would be just one more off-the-shelf genetic testing company, if the entire motivation weren’t to build this large database,” Venter told MIT Technology Review. “The future game is 100 percent in data interpretation. If we are having this conversation five to 10 years from now, it’s going to be very different. It will be, ‘Look how little we knew in 2015.’”