LONDON ¿ Sciona Ltd. says it will be the first company to offer a consumer gene testing service, screening for single nucleotide polymorphisms affecting metabolism and providing personalized nutrition and dietary advice based on the screen.

The company, based in Havant, Hants, UK, is in the process of raising #3 million to launch the service and will use this expertise as the basis to go on and develop SNP testing services in specific disease areas, including cardiovascular, oncology and central nervous system diseases for use in a clinical setting.

Chris Martin, CEO and founder, told BioWorld International, ¿It struck me that there is a lot of valuable information in terms of managing an individual¿s health, including diet and allergic reactions, and no one was taking it to market very efficiently because the technology was sitting in different silos.¿

¿What I identified was that we could provide useful information to people, using major metabolic makers to guide people on diet.¿

Sciona can test for 19 SNPs at present, and its screen will test for 50 SNPs by early next year. Subscribers to the service pay a yearly subscription of #120 for an initial screen and report. They will receive quarterly updates and their DNA will be rescreened at eight-month intervals. ¿We don¿t know now what we will be able to screen for in 12 months¿ time, so the service will involve regular testing.¿

Martin emphasizes that Sciona will not be testing for catastrophic gene defects (whether or not the condition they give rise to is treatable), but for polymorphisms that occur at a high frequency in the general population and where it is possible to offer useful advice. He himself has increased his dietary intake of folic acid after his screen indicated he overproduces an enzyme involved in its metabolism.

¿The advice we offer is based on three bodies of evidence: epidemiology of common diseases such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease; epidemiology and nutritional links based on large-scale studies of diet and health; and detailed knowledge of individual metabolic pathways.¿

Subscribers send a DNA sample from inside the cheeks and complete a detailed questionnaire about their existing diet and lifestyle. The advice given by Sciona is not of the broad-brush ¿eat your greens¿ sort, but instead gives very specific directives. ¿They receive a layered report, explaining the mechanism behind each recommendation, and taking into account their existing lifestyle.¿

The company is currently test marketing the service, and subscribers can sign up via the company¿s web site. Martin aims to sell through large channel partners and is in discussion with a major UK retailer with 800 outlets and a global retail company. He is also talking to a major U.S. company that believes such a testing service could defray the cost of providing health insurance to its employees.

Sciona has had discussions with the UK government advisory body, the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, and the Medical Device Agency about the launch of the service, and the need to create a regulatory framework for such testing services. ¿We want to be regulated, as we believe this will help to improve public confidence in our service,¿ Martin said.

The company has also talked to the UK insurers about whether they would require people applying for life insurance to reveal they subscribe to the service. ¿The insurance industry says it does not regard this as a genetic test, so there is no need for people to say they have been screened.¿

Sciona got initial funding of #700,000 in September 2000 from the venture capitalist Prelude Trust in Cambridge. Prelude also introduced Sciona to one of the other companies it funds, Genostic Pharma Ltd., which has developed a gene profiling system that currently can detect SNPs in 2,500 genes involved in 16 different disease areas.

¿Genostic has got a very broad IP platform and we have agreed in principle to merge the two,¿ Martin said. Gareth Roberts, CEO of Genostic, based in Cambridge, will become medical director of the merged company, which will take the Sciona name. The Genostic IP will form the basis of the clinical testing services that Sciona intends to start rolling out next year.

The 2,500 genes covered by Genostic¿s patents were identified by trawling the scientific literature for SNPs that influence predisposition to disease or reaction to drugs.