By Randall Osborne
West Coast Editor
DNA Sciences Inc. is taking genomics to the street - and not Wall Street, either, where companies working in the field already have reaped many millions.
The privately held, Mountain Valley, Calif.-based firm (formerly Kiva Genetics Inc.) bills itself as "the world's first consumer-focused genetics company" and is asking regular people for blood to build what the company calls its Gene Trust database.
Participants fill out confidential health and family profiles, and are asked for blood samples if they fit a research project planned or under way. Samples, which become a part of DNA Sciences' database, are stored by anonymous codes. The first areas of study are Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease, asthma, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and breast cancer.
In what may be the plainest confluence yet of the Internet and genomics, the company's website, dna.com, is asking for DNA donors from the general public.
"It's the same company as Kiva, but we changed the name, because we were able to get the dna.com [Internet address]," said Ray White, DNA Sciences' chief scientific officer.
Closely involved in the firm are well-known names from both realms. James Watson, who discovered the DNA double helix, is a director. A major investor and board member is James Clark, the Internet entrepreneur who founded, among others, Netscape Communications Corp.
Whether the wide-population "shotgun" approach to gene-seeking and gene-sorting works well enough to be worth the trouble is subject to debate, but others are also trying.
Framingham Genomic Medicine, with $6 million from the first round of venture capital financing and $21 million committed, has begun analyzing 52 years worth of genetic data from the largely government-funded Framingham Heart Study, sponsored by Boston University, which compiles information on the residents of Framingham, Mass. (See BioWorld Today, July 10, 2000, p. 1.)
DeCode Genetics Inc., of Reykjavik, Iceland, raised $172.8 million last month in an initial public offering (IPO) to push its drug development efforts using massive genetic data from that country's population, and Gemini Genomics plc, of Cambridge, U.K., garnered $84 million in an IPO for research that deploys DNA information from twins. (See BioWorld Today, July 19, 2000, p. 1, and July 27, 2000, p. 1.)
Of DNA Sciences' effort, White says, "Everything depends on the willingness to join, and that depends on their willingness to believe we can maintain their confidentiality" - which should not be difficult, given the anonymous code system.
The Internet's high access means there is "a good chance we'll get the kinds of numbers we need," he said. "It doesn't have to be a high proportion of people who join." What numbers those might be, and how well the huge-sampling idea will work, won't be clear for a while, White acknowledged.
"We really won't know, until we know what genetic susceptibility looks like." Anyway, DNA Sciences is not mainly a drug development enterprise, he added.
"Drugs are part of the story, and we'll certainly be alert to that," he said. "But we're different from other genomics companies, because our business target is the healthcare industry. There's value in genetic information itself."
In some cases, the user of the data will be the consumer, and in some cases the physician, White said. "But I think more often it will be the HMO or third-party provider that wants to integrate genomics into their system," he said.
Wide publicity for the effort - news of the project made the front-page of The New York Times - was reaping quick results, White said Tuesday, although he had no precise figures. "There was a flurry of activity on the server this morning," he said.