I was comparison shopping in New York's Soho neighborhood last week. The product? My DNA--and what it can tell me about when, or if, I might have a heart attack and keel over one day. Or if I have a high risk factor for acquiring exfoliate glaucoma or Alzheimer's disease. Better news would be that I have genetic markers protecting me from certain dreaded maladies.

In a few minutes I'll know my results for 17 gene-influenced diseases, delivered in a most unlikely place: A posh storefront that looks like an art gallery, with bare-brick walls and hardwood floors. It's opening day for Navigenics, a company selling what may be a first for on-site retail: genetic testing for the healthy, with tests ordered and results delivered online.

Piled on a countertop are boxed kits containing small vials that a customer will fill with DNA-rich saliva and mail in to be tested on a gene array--a chip that locates and identifies more than 1 million genetic markers, including those which scientists have connected with certain diseases.

Navigenics, based in Redwood Shores, California, is the latest company pushing us into the new world of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. I already have results from the two other major online genetic-testing companies that opened last fall: 23andme in Mountain View, California, and deCodeme in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The three companies do what the Web loves to do: push the edges of technology and commerce to see if they can launch new revolutions--and make money.

The issue is whether the science in the fledgling field of genetic forecasting is ready to be peddled to healthy individuals like an iPod. As Harvard geneticist David Altshuler asked me: "Just because you can do something, should you?"

As we hear almost daily reports about scientists discovering genes for this or that trait, a vacuum has formed in what this information means for individuals. So far, the medical community has largely abrogated its role to help us make sense of all this research. This has allowed commerce to step in and use new, cheaper gene-testing technologies to bring DNA directly to the people.

"We believe this is a fundamental right, for people to have access to their own DNA," Navigenics chief executive Mari Baker says.

At the moment, however, Navigenics is charging $2,500 for its service--beyond the reach of the masses; 23andme and deCodeme each charges close to $1,000.

That's $4,500 for all three, which collectively offer information on genetic risk factors for some 37 diseases. The companies expect prices to come down with volume and improvements in technology.

Baker acknowledges the price is high, though she points out that the first wave of any new technology is pricey--think about cell phones and personal computers. But, she adds, value is relative. "How much would it be worth to you to find out you have a risk of a disease that you can do something about?" she asks.

Each site proffers tests they consider scientifically valid, with Navigenics offering assessments of 17 diseases, deCodme 19 diseases, and 23andme 30 diseases. Some tests overlap. For instance, all three look for markers associated with heart attack, glaucoma, and type 2 diabetes.

The sites diverge on several diseases. Only Navigenics tests for lupus, and only deCodeme tests for asthma and psoriasis. 23andme's larger cache includes several maladies reported in studies that the other companies consider less scientifically valid.

I'll include much more detail on the tests and how they are chosen, and their validity and usefulness, in future columns in this series. I also will report on my own results as a typical consumer.

Two of the sites, 23andme and deCodeme, offer tests for ancestral DNA. Both also offer lists of "recreational genomics"--genes that some people consider fun, such as whether or not one has wet or dry earwax, or is more inclined to be a sprinter, an endurance athlete, or neither.

Navigenics differentiates itself from those companies by featuring only medical information and by creating a look that is more like a serious medical site, with smiling patients and doctors that echoes pharmaceutical sites and WebMD.

23andme's investors include Google; deCodeme's parent is publicly traded deCode Genetics, a pharmaceutical and gene-hunting company; Navigenics is funded in part by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

When Navigenics opened its retail store in New York, Kleiner Perkins chief John Doerr-whose venture successes include Google and Amazon--dropped by to tell a gathering of scientists, journalists, marketers, and investors that he has been tested on the Navigenics site. Doerr was mum about his results, however. Also attending was former Vice President Al Gore, a new partner at Kleiner. He said he hadn't been tested but was considering it.

But can the products be trusted? Do they deliver? Can we yet determine which gene site is better? This series is going to offer up one consumer's thoughts and observations about being tested on the three sites. It's not exactly Consumer Reports, but it aims to offer a review of sorts.

 

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