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The US’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) and genetic health company Color announced a multiyear grant partnership that will see the California-based startup take on critical functions of the NIH’s All of Us genetic research program.
The initiative was officially launched in May 2018 with an aim to incorporate the biological, genetic, and lifestyle information of 1 million people, and it’s already locked in 188,000 participants. Color will be tasked with delivering all genetic testing results to program participants, providing genetic counseling for those whose genetic profile reveals actionable health information, building custom software and data tools, and more.
The company’s latest NIH tie-up builds on Color’s ongoing collaborationwith the Broad Institute and Harvard’s Laboratory of Molecular Medicine, which last September were collectively named as one of the three centers to conduct genetic testing for the project.
We caught up with a team of Color execs, including CEO Othman Laraki, who gave us the inside scoop on what Color’s involvement with All of Us means for the startup and the future of genetic testing:
- All of Us could help population-scale genetic health become an everyday clinical resource — and Color hopes it can be the machine behind it all. Laraki thinks the reason we don’t see more population-scale genetic health initiatives isn’t because of scientific or technological barriers — but rather logistical roadblocks that prevent more healthcare providers and large payers from implementing them. But Color execs think the firm is building a framework that could assist care providers in pushing through their logistical wall: Color pointed to its recent partnershipwith Chicago’s NorthShore University HealthSystem, which began offering patients Color’s genetic testing as an opt-in alongside routine treatment, as a step forward for the industry. Laraki also remarked that Color’s large employer partners regularly see 30-50% of employees sign up for Color’s genetic testing services within a year of adding their services to company health plans. Color’s partnership with the NIH could help raise the company’s status as a go-to partner for large organizations interested in population health management.
- Color sets itself apart from other genetic testing companies by packaging in free genetic counseling as part of a fully integrated solution for population health — a factor that likely helped the company secure its partnership with the NIH. Genetic counselors are licensed practitioners, and their job is to help patients better understand the potential impact of their test results on themselves and their family members. Or, in the words of Color’s Head of Genetic Counseling Lauren Ryan, "The purpose of genetic counseling is to take the information that is returned from [a patient’s] sample and make it meaningful for their health." This fits in with the larger philosophy guiding the All of Us project, which is to do more than collect data from participants and seal it away in a black box, but to actively engage with participants regarding their results and future health outcomes. While other genetic testing companies, like 23andMe, offer genetic counseling to consumers, Color says it’s the only company that integrates the service as part of its standard product.
The bigger picture: All of Us could improve the value of genetic health data by addressing a major problem in healthcare research: diversity.
Genetic research largely fails to incorporate data from people of non-European descent, which can lead to skewed health outcomes. Only 12% of the global population is of European descent, but they account for 80% of people included in genomic research. And this creates problems when medical researchers glean data from these banks to guide treatment plans.
Algorithms that doctors use to prescribe the appropriate amount of a blood thinner Warfarin are effective for people with European ancestry, but consistently overprescribe for African-American patients, putting them at risk of excessive bleeding, for example. All of Us could help make a dent in the medical research diversity problem as 80% of the program’s current participants are from traditionally underrepresented groups in medical research — and over half are from racial or ethnic minority groups.
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