San Diego Gene-Sequencing Giant Illumina Launches Consumer-Focused Company
San Diego gene-sequencing giant Illumina launched a new consumer-facing genomics company Tuesday called Helix.
Helix said it will provide "affordable sequencing and database services" to consumers, allowing them to store genetic information in the cloud and make sense of it through a variety of applications.
The company hasn't fully detailed its plans yet, but starting in 2016, it will aim to help consumers better understand their genealogy, inherited traits and personal health by bringing together a range of gene-analysis services from third-party partners.
Helix represents a pivot for Illumina, a company that has mostly focused on catering to scientists and medical researchers. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing has so far been dominated by 23andMe.
Initial investment in Helix comes from Illumina and the firms Warburg Pincus and Sutter Hill Ventures. Illumina CEO Jay Flatley will serve as the chairman of Helix's board.
"Helix and its founding investors are committed to creating a neutral platform at the highest quality standard that will work with partners to accelerate consumer adoption of genomics," Flatley said in a press release.
The Mayo Clinic's Keith Stewart says his organization will be on board to educate consumers about what their genetic variants actually mean.
"In some ways this could be somewhat disruptive," Stewart said. "In other ways it should lead to improved understanding of genomics for the consumer, how it could help them, and hopefully result in better healthcare."
Another partner, LabCorp, will give Helix users information about "medically actionable genetic conditions."
Stewart said Helix will work closely with the Food and Drug Administration to comply with regulations covering health-related genetic information. In 2013, 23andMe was ordered to stop offering personal health information directly to consumers after failing to comply with the FDA.
"This is clearly uncharted territory," Stewart said. "We do know that the genome will become increasingly powerful as we learn more about it. But this is new ground, and we'd like to be part of trying to understand how consumers will use this."
Kelly Frazer, director of UC San Diego's Institute for Genomic Medicine, believes the trend of putting more genetic information in the hands of consumers could lead to better healthcare outcomes.
"There's no one who cares more about their health than the individual," Frazer said.
She argues that many find it empowering to know their personal risk of developing a disease.
"I think that if the individual wants that information they should have access to it," Frazer said.
As more information emerges about Helix, Frazer will look to see how it balances consumer privacy with demand from partners hoping to use Helix data for research.
"If this takes off and does become a huge bio-bank for human genetic information, there are lots of people in academic institutes who could probably help interpret that," Frazer said.