23andMe Testing Kit

23andMe has continued to provide people information about everything from their ancestry to their genetic risk, using its genetic tests. 

However, another consumer genetics company, known as Color Genomics has unveiled a plan to give people a peek at their genetic risk for two major conditions: hereditary cancer and high cholesterol. 

The announcement was given by high profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, who was speaking at global healthcare conference HLTH in Las Vegas and is one of the company’s investors. 

Color’s move into cancer and high cholesterol comes after a recent decision by 23andMe to give customers information about some of their genetic risk for breast cancer. 

However, its approach has one key difference, rather than simply making the information available directly to the customer, Color is partnering with several universities so that patients of existing healthcare systems would be able to get their results only with the guidance of a physician or a trained genetics counselor. 

Knowing whether or not you have a genetic tweak that’s linked with a disease like cancer can be powerful medicine when that knowledge is delivered in the right way of course. However, giving people access to this kind of information without doing it alongside guidance from a trained medical professional could have the opposite intended effect, explained John Witte, the program leader for the cancer genetics program at the University of California at San Francisco. 

A customer who finds out they have zero of the breast cancer tweaks that 23andMe currently tests for might wrongly assume they’re no longer at risk for the disease, he added. That could have the unfortunate result of making that person less likely to catch the disease earlier if they go on to develop it. 

In order to avoid this, Color is partnering with four large universities – the University of California, San Francisco; the University of Chicago; the University of Washington; and Thomas Jefferson University – to make them available to patients at those institutions for free alongside a genetic counselor from Color or the institution. This is an approach which outside experts have backed, largely because it places the information behind a gatekeeper who can translate the results and advise on any necessary next steps. 

The new initiative will focus on two conditions where genetics play a key role: cancer – breast, ovarian, colorectal, and prostate – and high cholesterol, also known as familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH. Several genes are involved in the development of both conditions, while other factors like diet and exercise can play a key role, too. 

There are a number of reasons why Color has set its sights on these two conditions. One is that the genes these conditions involve have been found to be closely linked with the risk of disease. Another is that well-defined preventive measures like dietary changes exist for both conditions, meaning that people who learn they are at higher risk for FH, for example, can take steps now to decrease their chances of developing it. 

Color CEO, Othman Laraki stands firmly behind the approach. “We want to focus on a few things with the highest quality possible and scale them, rather than going a mile wide and an inch deep on several,” he concluded.