A technician extracts DNA from sludge samples in a research laboratory at the Hong Kong Science Park in Hong Kong, China.(Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg)

Genetic-Testing Startup Expands Beyond Cancer to Mental Health

(Bloomberg) -- A decade ago, Othman Laraki was working as a product manager at Google when he found out he was a carrier of a harmful BRCA2 gene mutation, one associated with a high risk of cancer.

It wasn’t a complete surprise -- his grandmother had died from breast cancer and his mother was a carrier of the mutation who had survived the disease twice. Still, it set his brain in motion. He’d been carrying around potential life-saving data in his body his entire life but had no easy way to access it.

Genetic-Testing Startup Expands Beyond Cancer to Mental Health

“This information should be available and usable before people get sick,” said Laraki. “And not after you’ve had multiple people in your family die of cancer.”

Thus was born Color Genomics, a genetic-testing company co-founded in 2013 by Laraki that has attracted $150 million in investments from big names including billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs and the venture capital firm General Catalyst. Just this week, the Burlingame, California-based startup scored funding from the National Institutes of Health to analyze genomic data for the agency’s All of Us research program.

After first launching with a clinical-grade test for 19 genes associated with common hereditary cancers in 2015, the company on Thursday rolled out a significant expansion that seeks to capture a far larger swath of the booming genetic-testing market.

Color will now offer one simplified $249 test with two new features. One is a foray into so-called pharmocogenetics that analyzes 14 genes associated with common prescription drugs. For example, the test could provide insight into whether mental-health medications like Zoloft and Paxil may work better or worse for certain individuals.

Another test takes aim more squarely at direct-to-consumer competitors like 23andMe, addressing less medically significant questions like what a person’s genes say about his or her taste for cilantro. Those new tests will be rolled into one product along with Color’s other offerings.

Like its direct-to-consumer rivals, Color was founded on the belief that software could bring genetic testing to the masses. But there are a few key differences: Color offers only a few extremely comprehensive tests, it requires that those tests be ordered by a physician and it includes genetic counseling in the cost. It markets kits to consumers but they need a doctor to authorize use. The goal was to make a test good enough to base medical decisions on.

“To do it right, to do it responsibly, you have to have that support,” said Laraki, 40, who serves as Color’s chief executive officer.

‘Mixed Bag’

Color’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests, for example, look at not just a few mutations of the genes, as 23andMe’s competing test does, but at more than 2,000. While 23andMe has attracted criticism that its disease-risk tests are misleading, Color has quietly gained a following for its emphasis on including doctors and genetic counselors in the process.

“This whole field has been such a mixed bag,” said Eric Topol, a geneticist at Scripps Research Institute and frequent critic of the direct-to-consumer genetics space.

Color, on the other hand, he said, is a model for how to provide low-cost information to consumers that is both usable and easily digestible.

“It’s an exemplar of actionable, low-expense, high-quality sequencing,” he said. “I give kudos to Color.”

Color isn’t the only company focused on bringing consumer-friendly, medical-grade genetic tests to a broader market. Invitae offers several diagnostic tests, along with reproductive and “proactive” health tests. Likewise, Helix, backed by the biotech firm Illumina Inc., offers several disease-risk tests in its “app store for DNA.”

Wide-scale genetic testing, said Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered the BRCA1 gene, is on the way, but it’s companies that integrate medical expertise that are best-suited to deliver that future. King signed on to advise Color after being impressed by the company’s testing accuracy.

“Much of the genomic space is really a mess,” King said. “Color got it right.”

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