From deCODE to Athleticode in DTC Genetic Testing

One week ago deCODE genetics declared bankruptcy and, yesterday, the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware provided preliminary approval for deCODE’s liquidation plan, including the debtor-in-possession financing pledged by Saga Investments.

deCODE’s struggles have been well chronicled, and there has been plenty of other discussion about whether direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing is a commercially viable industry at this point in time. Although it is nothing more than sheer coincidence, the past week has also brought to my attention two new DTC genetic testing companies that, though they may be quick to draw the skeptic’s attention, indicate that there are investors that continue to see long-term commercial potential in DTC genetic testing.


My Gene Profile. Genetic Future covered this company last week and wondered if this was “the lamest genetic testing scam on the internet?” The company purports to offer an “inborn talent genetic test” intended to assist parents in identifying the optimum career path for their child. My Gene Profile, which appears to be located in Singapore, looks to be nothing more than an open invitation for consumers to waste their money, as well as the latest example of the Wild, Wild East of DTC Genomics.

[The original version of this article was posted using a different image (which was previously used by the GLR in “The Wild, Wild East of DTC Genomics and the Need for Meaningful Self-Regulation“) and that image, combined with the proximity of the discussion about Athleticode to my comments on My Gene Profile, prompted the co-founder of Athleticode, Dr. James Kovach, to object to what he viewed as an unwarranted criticism of Athleticode. It was not my intent to damn Athleticode by association with My Gene Profile or other obvious genetic testing scams. While I do not think the original version of this post would have led a careful reader to that conclusion, I acknowledge the potential for confusion and, for that reason, have deleted the image and added this editorial note. – Dan Vorhaus]

Athleticode. Closer to home, a colleague recently pointed me to Athleticode, another new DTC genetic testing company that aims to “identify and understand genetic sports-related health risks and maximize individual athletic potential.”

Athleticode’s website itself offers little information about the exact genetic testing and other services the company is providing, and my attempts to contact the company directly have not, so far, received a response. In fact, the only real insight into the company’s plans comes from a recent story in ESPN The Magazine (“Cheating is so 1999: Which is why The Magazine spent a year searching for the athletic holy grail: a sports gene.”).

The article, by Shaun Assael, takes a largely deterministic view of genetics (Assael writes that DNA is a “wondrous strand of three billion pieces of data that control every aspect of human life”) in describing an attempt to seek out a “sports gene.” The first fruit of that search was a genome-wide association study (GWAS) carried out by Dr. Jim Kovach, the President and Chief Operating Officer of The Buck Institute for Age Research, a genetic research facility in Marin, California with assistance from DTC genetic testing company 23andMe and a cohort of approximately 100 current and former NFL linemen.

Not surprisingly, the GWAS in search of a sports gene was a flop. Assael wrote that the “theory that NFL linemen might be genetic outliers was flat-out wrong. Every way that 23andMe looked at it, the pros were just like the Joes.” But as Daniel MacArthur of Genetic Future wrote at the time, jumping from a failure to locate the “athletic holy grail” to the conclusion that “genetics may not be a good predictor of athletic success” is likely unwarranted.

It’s unsurprising that the results of this study are negative . . ., but the conclusions they draw from this are fallacious. In fact we know from twin and family studies that many (but not all) traits related to athletic performance are highly heritable; researchers just haven’t been able to track down the vast majority of the genetic variants responsible yet, and this study is no exception.

Which is where, apparently, Athleticode comes in. The remainder of Assael’s article describes how Kovach, along with Dr. Huntington Willard, Director of the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University, developed a list of “18 genes whose variants played a clear and convincing role in specific sports-related traits.” According to the article, Athleticode was formed in September to commercialize this research through genetic testing for those and other genes, along with the provision of “counseling and personalized training based on [the athlete’s] results.”

While I have no reason to group Athleticode with genetic testing scams such as My Gene Profile, it’s not clear whether the company is in a position to deliver real value to either its customers or its investors at this point. There don’t appear to be any services available from the company at this time, and in the same ESPN article describing Athleticode’s formation Kovach himself is quoted as saying that he has “no idea” how genes impact athletic performance: “Athleticism is a complex trait. How our genes interact is still a mystery.”

Still, investment in DTC genetic testing continues despite that uncertainty and the struggles of deCODE and other companies. Even within the narrow segment of athletic genetic testing Athleticode is not without competition. Atlas Sports Genetics, a company which sells a $149 test that promises to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths, has been marketing its own product for over a year (although it has been criticized for using genetic testing “to sell new versions of snake oil”).

As for the consumers of DTC genetic testing, only once Athleticode reveals more specific details about its services and pricing will the value proposition for individuals become clearer. In the meantime, the company does provide one piece of interesting information about the way in which it intends to deliver its service to customers: “Your Athleticode report will be delivered to you along with a physician if needed.” (see screenshot below)

There are no clarifying details, which allows for a number of possible interpretations, including that Athleticode intends to provide company-procured physician referrals to its customers where required by law (e.g., where true DTC genetic testing may not be legal). Another possible interpretation is that the physician herself would be included in the package, but the packaging in that case is hard to picture.