GeneWatch PR: DeCode Genetics files for bankruptcy

The flagship gene testing company DeCode Genetics, based in Iceland, today filed for bankruptcy (1). Responding, Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK said: "This is not just the death of a company, it's the death of an idea. For most people, finding out your own genetic make-up is rarely of any benefit to health".

In the early days of the Human Genome Project, some scientists claimed that screening the genes of the whole population would allow people who are genetically susceptible to different diseases to be identified and given specific advice, such as to quit smoking, or medication to prevent illness. This idea has been adopted as a means to attempt to market 'personalised' products to people based on their genetic make-up, including supplements, medicines, functional foods and skin creams. However, predicting genetic risk has turned out to be very complicated, as it depends on many different factors, and common diseases are usually much more strongly influenced by environment or lifestyle.

"Most diseases in most people do not depend much on your genetic make-up", said Dr Wallace. "Diseases often run in families due to shared lifestyles, environments and incomes, not because of genes. Genetic horoscopes are much less reliable than predictions of the weather, because biology is complex and poorly understood".

Tests claiming to identify an individual's genetic susceptibility to common diseases, such as heart disease and cancers, have been widely criticised by scientists and medical professionals, because the implications of a particular genetic sequence for a person's risk is complicated and poorly understood. Tests performed by different companies are frequently interpreted to give opposite results, medical advice is often not provided, and commercial conflicts-of-interest can arise (2).

Some genetic research into common diseases has nevertheless been useful to help explain the biology underlying such diseases, and DeCode has played a leading role in identifying some of these genetic factors. But the gene tests it sold directly to the public have been widely criticised. For example, using a tape measure and a set of bathroom scales gives a better prediction of risk of developing type-2 (adult-onset) diabetes than DeCode's genetic test (3).

US gene testing company 23andMe - funded by Google and co-founded by the wife of Google founder Sergei Brin - this week also announced that it would be selling its health-related gene tests separately from its ancestry tests (4). The move appears to have been prompted by public reluctance to buy health-related tests over the internet.

Rare inherited forms of common diseases exist, so gene testing can sometimes be useful for members of families where there have been unusually large numbers of cases of a particular disease, such as breast cancer. But there is concern about the lack of counselling provided by companies marketing such tests over the internet.

In Britain, the UK Biobank research project was developed as a pilot project for a national DNA database linked to electronic medical records, in an attempt to win the race with DeCode to commercialise the human genome. In 2003, ministers claimed that genetic tests to predict common diseases would soon be developed and even proposed that every baby should have its genome sequenced at birth (5).

For further information, contact:
Dr Helen Wallace. Office: 01298-24300; Mobile: 07903-311584.

Notes to editors:
(1) DeCode Genetics Press Release:
(2) See, for example, Sunday Times, 7th September 2008: Reuters, 7th October 2009: New York Times, 6th November 2009:
(3) Exmples of genes and common diseases are available in:
(5) For more information, see the GeneWatch briefing: .

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