Discovery to offer genetic testing

Published Sep 23, 2015


Cape Town - My heart rate quickened a little when I heard on Wednesday that the medical aid I belong to has big, low-cost plans for genetic screening... potentially of me.

Well not just me, of course, but I am my own best sample group when it comes to privacy and rights over personal information.

Leading South African medical insurance company Discovery Health announced that it had signed a deal with Craig Venter, the American scientist who raced the US government to map the human genome 15 years ago, to offer genetic tests to members in South Africa and the UK for the equivalent of just $250 (about R3 400).

Other financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

A notable part of the deal is reported to be the fact that the price per customer "marks yet another dramatic decline in the cost of gene sequencing". Not that this price tag represents the cost or the value of the deal in any meaningful way, though, since the data collected, in a de-identified form, is destined to be part of a much bigger project that will be commercialised in other ways.

Such data is highly prized by pharmaceutical companies for drug research. It might be a bit late anyway for me to try to go incognito on my health status since Vitality, Discovery's incentive programme, already holds plenty of information on members like myself.

To earn the rewards offered for healthy habits I give Vitality information to track my behaviour. A swipe card records the quantities of fruit and vegetables, juices and sparkling water I buy at certain stores; another one collects information on my gym attendance.

Keeping track of these transactions delivers plenty of other information about my behaviour, such as how much sparkling wine I buy, where and when I shop and exercise, as well as my weight, heart rate and so on if I choose to track my vitals on computers in the gym.

The deal between Human Longevity, Venter's health information technology and healthcare company, and Discovery will take the benefits of being a member of Vitality off the scale of tracking how you nurture your body and deep into what nature has in store for you by enabling Vitality members in the UK and South Africa to get "full exome sequencing" in exchange for giving their data to Venter.

Whole exome sequencing screens the protein-making segments of DNA known as exons, which represent only 2 percent of the human genome, but account for 85 percent of disease-causing genetic mutations.

Chief executive of Discovery Health, Dr Jonathan Broomberg said clients who choose exome screening would get a comprehensive report that included disease risk as well as potential wellness strategies.

"We believe that this is a pioneering approach in global health insurance, and will enable us to provide our clients with the world's most advanced, current knowledge on their genetically determined disease risks, as well as on personalised health, wellness and medical treatment strategies."

Discovery said clients would also benefit from regular updates to their reports, as new scientific discoveries emerge, and would be able to access these via specially designed web and app interfaces.

The venture with Discovery is part of Venter's plans to build a library of data from 1-million exomes, which his company would commercialise.

A statement from the two companies added: "The combined genomic and phenotypic data becomes part of the HLI database and will support HLI in further expanding the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of whole genome, phenotype and clinical data."

roomberg added: "The de-identified genomic data will be used for extensive ongoing research with numerous collaborators around the world, and we are excited that together with our clients, we will be able to make a material contribution to global research efforts aimed at improving the health of populations and reducing the growing burden of diseases of lifestyle."

Human Longevity signed a deal in January with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, to conduct whole genome sequencing and analysis of tens of thousands of de-identified samples from Genentech in an effort to identify new drug targets.

Venter said at the time: "At HLI we have built unprecedented capabilities for whole genome sequencing and interpretation to enable a wide array of advances in healthcare. The application of our capabilities to discover new diagnostics and targeted therapies is one of the most relevant today."

Commenting on the deal with Discovery, Venter said: "We believe that genomic understanding of lives is one of the best ways to positively impact human health and health outcomes, and together Discovery and HLI are paving the way for a new healthcare future."

Touching on the issues of ethics and privacy protection, surely a risk factor in the management of some members' blood pressure, a statement from the two companies noted: "The highest standards of data security will be implemented by both HLI and Discovery, ensuring that client data is fully protected."

So how am I feeling about receiving information on my genetic predisposition for disease? Not great [Hearts skips a beat]. How about helping researchers find cures for disease, including those I am predisposed to? I think I feel my heart rate improving. How do I feel about an American man, even if his name does sound South African, selling that information on? No change.-


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