Google invests in second DNA screening start-up

It's hoped that DNA screening could further the cause of preventative medicine for future generations

After generating plenty of column inches last year with a £2 million investment in 23andMe, Google appears to be at it again, pumping an undisclosed sum into another DNA screening start-up called Navigenics.

"We are interested in supporting companies … that [bolster] our mission statement, which is organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful," Google spokesman Andrew Pederson said of the investment.

Of course, as neat and tidy as that might all sound there’s clearly a lot more to it than that. So, what does lie behind Google’s generosity towards the emerging DNA screening sector?

Why so generous?

In the case of Google’s investment into 23andMe last year there was at least a bit of family interest as 23andMe was started up by Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

In the case of Navigenics there are no direct family ties. However, it does seem that Google’s board members have a genuine interest in DNA screening, as much from a human perspective as one informed by business.

That said, it could also be argued that Google’s interest makes solid financial sense, especially if the fledgling DNA screening industry takes off in the next decade as some analysts predict it will. Investing its money in two of the leading companies at such an early stage could well reap Google huge financial rewards in years to come.

And of course, there’s also the pioneering aspect of the technology itself. The fact that the technology holds so much potential to be put to good use in the future won’t have been lost in Google’s image makers and brand managers either.

What’s on offer?

So what of the actual services being offered by 23andMe and Navigenics? What exactly are they able to offer, and can they really advance the cause of preventative medicine?

For between £1000 and £4000 both companies basically provide their customers with DNA testing that can help to establish how likely they are to contract certain medical conditions later in life.

The process is, at least theoretically, fairly simple; the customer simply provides a saliva sample and a few weeks later, once the tests are complete, they can log on to a secure site to see the results.

In addition to establishing a customer’s likelihood of developing say, lower back pain or cancer, the tests are also able to provide a number of ‘fun’ things like genetic ancestry.

Both companies also claim to offer counselling services to customers presented with bad news alongside ongoing updates via email about the latest developments in fields of medicine they may find themselves affected by.

DNA screening: help or hindrance?

While some welcome the new technology and the benefits it could possibly bring to future generations, many others remain sceptical as to the advantages of rolling out a medical technology still in its infant stages to the masses.

Even the screening companies themselves employ prominent disclaimers on all of their literature warning potential customers that medical decisions should not be made on the result of a test without seeking proper medical advice.

A recent editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine even urged doctors to advise scepticism about the companies' tests.