The genetics marketplace might have lost its way.
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of someone taking an affordable genetic test at home, sending their sample through the mail, and receiving results online seemed completely foreign. Yet that’s the reality today, with millions of people seeking out answers from their genetic code to inform them on issues from lifestyle insights to disease risk to tracing their roots.
Genetic testing has entered the cultural conversation, and kits can be cheaply ordered online from a number of sites. Genomic science has also evolved in its ability to recognize cellular-level insights, and has the ability to not only identify certain markers, but create a comprehensive picture of how a person’s unique DNA impacts their health and their body’s response to the world around it.
One would think that the current intersection of scientific and cultural awareness would mean that everyone was using genetic testing as both a blueprint for understanding how their bodies worked, and as a roadmap for making diet and lifestyle choices going forward. But that’s not the case. The value propositions of genetic companies are missing the mark, and both consumers and practitioners are missing out on the wealth of insights testing can provide.
While the genetics marketplace has nearly lost its way, it’s not unsavable, and there are missed opportunities with consumers that can become opportunities for growth. But first we need to understand where we’ve been to understand where we’re going.
How the Genetics Industry Has Evolved
Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have become household names, and brought genetic testing into the broader cultural conversation with at-home testing kits that are easy to use, affordable, and allow everyday people to access their results online. They broke down the barrier to entry for the general public to see that testing was accessible, and kickstarted an industry that today has hundreds of players offering tests for both ancestry tracking and health data.
While genetic testing was becoming more broadly acceptable on the consumer side, genetics was also becoming a valuable tool to healthcare. Understanding a person’s genetic makeup and how genes work with other biomarkers has been able to inform healthcare practitioners on treatment and drug therapies for patients, especially in chemotherapy choices. Understanding genetic makeup can also help patients avoid certain adverse drug reactions.
Genetics has grown in the academic world as well, with articles and even entire medical journals now devoted to research and application. Dedicated genetic conferences are permanent in the conference calendar,, and portions of other medical and healthcare conferences are including sessions on genetics as they apply to other specialty areas. This kind of exposure adds legitimacy to the field, and awareness around the impact genetic testing can make in healthcare.
This was the promise to consumers: DNA testing can reveal to you your unique cellular makeup so you can know what diseases you’re susceptible to, how your body reacts to the world around it, and how you can make informed changes to live a longer, fuller, and better life. But despite all the promises and benefits, the past decade has seen a shift in the conversation. Concerns around trust, accuracy, privacy, and ethics have thrown real doubt on the industry, especially when consumers see big pharma investing in genetic companies, or fear that their results may be sold or used against them by insurance companies. Above all, consumers are missing out on the promise of personalization that genetic testing was supposed to offer.
The State of Genetic Testing Today
The genetics marketplace is saturated, and while competition tends to be healthy, companies focusing on the wrong things will hurt the industry more than help it. Today, there are hundreds of genetics companies that offer different types of testing for a variety of goals, yet some are better than others.
The most well-known of these are companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, who have processed tens of millions of tests, mostly focused on ancestry but offering health results as well. But there are also “cut and paste” companies that simply copy another company’s test results or database and add their own brand. Other companies offer DNA testing in order to market their own supplements as a “solution” to the results. Still others are practitioner brands that offer results, education, and support around test results. Each company varies in their science, what genes they include, and how they educate the end user, whether it be a consumer or practitioner.
The one thing they do have in common is a focus on the result, and wanting to provide a recommendation or treatment plan based on that result. But the problem is that too often that recommendation isn’t personalized. Everyone’s DNA is unique, so shouldn’t every person’s results be tailored to who they are and how they can make the best choices for themselves to improve their quality of life?
In fact, in a recent report on the State of Genetic Testing in the US 2020, respondents wanted more guidance after the test results came back: More personalized results, more education, more support, more ways to move forward with the new information they now have. This means that there’s great opportunity for players to step in and fill in the blanks.
The Trends Shaping the Future
The industry might have failed consumers, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. It means that there is great opportunity for growth going forward, and there are a few trends we’re guaranteed to see as we do.
A rise in guides:
People looking for answers from their genetic tests won’t be left to figure out a way forward themselves. As awareness increases around ways consumers can improve their lives using the information from their results, more personal trainers, health coaches, and practitioners will fill the space, providing health and lifestyle guidance for those looking for paths forward. Our report uncovered that those who took a test with a practitioner were more likely to implement changes to their lives than if they took the test alone. An expanding market requires more education, and these “guides” will know how to add value to lives looking for it.
Genetic testing won’t be a stand-alone data point, but will be integrated into a person’s everyday lifestyle data, alongside what they eat, their biomarkers, their daily activity, their gut health, and any blood or urine tests. Currently, genetic test results stand alone, but the better genetics can be integrated with other data, the more comprehensive picture an individual can get about their health.
In addition to more data integration, in the future more people will want — and have — control of their own data. In other words, those who take a genetic test should own their own data, and not be afraid it’ll be sold or used against them (which was a concern we found in our report). While there are regulations in place regarding test privacy, companies need to address this concern if they want to retain customer trust.
More “-omics” partnerships:
An expanding genetics market will also include expanding specialty areas to help consumers understand how to approach and use their results. Genomics is just the start. Proteomics (the study of proteins), epigenomics (the study of how genes get switched ‘on’ or ‘off’), metabolomics (the study of biomarkers), and more “-omics” will, together, provide more accurate measurements and insights for individuals.
Will we see genetics integrate with blockchain technology? Companies are already experimenting with putting customer genetic data — anonymized, of course — on public, decentralized blockchains that medical research organizations can use. Instead of disparate, private test results, DNA results add to an ongoing public “conversation.”
Whole genome testing:
Right now companies only test certain genes (depending on the company), but in the future we’ll see whole genome testing available to consumers at affordable costs. It is available right now, but the price is out of reach for most consumers, and we aren’t yet able to interpret most of the data.
Genetics and biohacks:
Biohacking, or using wearables and apps to track one’s own data, is already a trend, but genetic test results may prompt those to seek more answers from their own body. Biohack data integrated with genetic data will give consumers a much more accurate picture of how their own body works.
Why Lifestyle Genomics is the Future
Everything we are and everything we do is impacted by our genes, and our genetic variability makes us who we are as unique individuals. Conversely, everything we do, from what we eat and drink, to how we manage stress, to our environment, affects how our genes behave. Lifestyle genomics is the relationship between our genes and every choice we make.
This is why the ultimate goal of genetic testing isn’t just for testing’s sake. It’s for translation, and being able to provide personalized and valuable insights to enable individuals to make the best possible choices in their lives. Currently the industry is lacking in providing this kind of meaningful way forward. But awareness, education, and dedication can increase the value provided to test takers’ lives, and will get the genetics marketplace back on the right path.