With PerkinElmer and Northshore deals, personal genomics company Helix gets more clinical

By Jonah Comstock
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Personal genomics company Helix announced two new partnerships this week, both of which take the company — which has focused on ancestry and lifestyle applications in the past — strongly into the clinical realm. Helix will work with medical technology company PerkinElmer on a product to analyze 59 genes considered by the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics to be well understood and actionable. It will also work with Northshore University Health System to make Northshore’s genetic risk test for prostate cancer available more broadly.

“The Helix mission has been to serve people with anything they want to know about their genome throughout their lives,” Helix cofounder and SVP of Business Development Justin Kao told MobiHealthNews. “But we’ve always known that health-related products and clinically-related products are an area people really want to engage in, and frankly some of the most powerful products in the genome. … We’ve always known that we would be moving hard in the health direction. … These announcements are a very firm signal that we are continuing to do that and that we are continuing to have really high-quality partners who want to work with us in this way.”

Helix differs from other consumer-focused genetic testing companies in that it has a platform approach. A user only has to get tested once, for an $80 add-on fee the first time they purchase a Helix product. Helix sequences the user’s genome, using a technique called next-generation sequencing, and keeps the data in secure storage. Users are then free to shop around with Helix’s third-party partners, paying a comparatively small fee for particular applications of that data, which range from ancestry to wine recommendations to personalized socks and scarves coded with genetic data.

“Because we actually handle all the hard work of sample collection, credit card processing, data storage, user accounts, all that kind of thing, our partners actually just work with data,” Kao said. “And that means they can focus on the interpretation. They can focus on delivering great user experiences, on providing genetic counseling support, on really whatever their expertise is. So we’re trying to move this from being a lab, chemistry, hardware kind of problem into really becoming a digital health software problem."

For clinically focused partnerships, including existing diabetes and cholesterol tests from Admera Health, the two forthcoming tests from PerkinElmer and Northshore, and another yet-to-come collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, more steps are involved in the process: After the user requests the test online, they must fill out a questionnaire that is then reviewed by a physician. Based on the questionnaire, the physician can order the test, which allows Helix to be subject to different FDA regulations than true direct-to-consumer, over-the-counter tests. In addition, all of Helix’s clinical tests offer genetic counseling after a user gets their results back.

The Northshore test is something the health system has already been using with its own patients, Kao said.

“I think the excitement in the partnership is the ability to take this science they’ve developed and have been using in the clinic and bring it out to a nationwide audience,” he said.

The 59 genes in the PerkinElmer test deal with a range of actionable consequences that users would likely not be aware of without a genetic test, including a gene that causes a dangerous reaction to a common anesthetic and the BRCA gene, which is associated with high risks for breast cancer and ovarian cancer (The BRCA gene became something of a household name in 2013, when actor Angelina Jolie shared in a New York Times editorial that she had chosen to have preventative surgery because of the gene and her mother’s medical history).

Kao says the appeal of Helix’s framework is that the value of that test and others will increase over time as the science advances.

“Traditionally, people are not that excited about a one-time test. Selling people a one-time test, that’s a hard value proposition,” he said. “But I actually view this and a lot of the other products our health partners are working on as a little bit different. Because we know that knowledge of the human genome is still in its infancy. And we know that there are new discoveries coming out every month, if not every week.”