by Ditsa Keren

Promoting Self-Care with Genera's Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing

Promoting Self-Care with Genera's Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing

Genera is the first genetics laboratory in Brazil to offer a personalized, direct-to-consumer health testing platform. By promoting well-being through self-knowledge, they aspire to make genetic testing accessible for anyone, says Genera Co-founder and CEO Ricardo di Lazzaro

Please describe the story behind Genera.

I founded Genera in 2010 with my partner Andre Chinchio. After studying pharmaceutical biochemistry together at the University of San Paolo, I went on and got my second degree in medicine. We were both passionate about genetics and pursued this knowledge throughout our studies. We did some research work at the university laboratory and in 2010, we decided to open our own genetic laboratory. We were just students and we didn’t have much money, so we started creating partnerships with some university professors and used their private labs.

We wanted to offer personal genomic tests, but we realized that it would be better to start off with paternity tests. In 2014, we made a partnership with Family Tree DNA to resell their ancestry testing platform in Brazil.

The company grew and so did our portfolio, with offerings like fetal gender tests, lactose intolerance, nutrigenomics, fitness, and wellness.

In 2019, Dasa, the fifth-largest diagnostics group in the world, had acquired a portion of our company. We decided to internalize and start performing the tests here in our lab while developing our own platform for ancestry, wellness, and disease risks. We have built what is now the largest genetic laboratory in South America and started doing our own analyses.

This was a key move for us as it allowed us to shorten the time-to-results. Brazil has a huge problem with logistics. Mailing your samples to a lab isn’t always as straightforward as it might be in the US. By internalizing our service, we were finally able to manage this problem, which allowed us to lower the price dramatically.

Nowadays we’re offering a unified consumer genomics test that includes ancestry, wellness, and disease risk. We have partnerships with tens of clinics across Brazil that sell our tests and this month, we are expanding to Argentina and Uruguay.

Here’s a quick view of Genera’s Ancestry report

Genera's Ancestry report

What would be your tip for a layperson who wants to learn about their genome and understand their DNA data?

People are curious about their DNA, either because of their ancestry or because they want to have a healthy life, which is typically very important for Brazilians. In fact, Brazil has one of the largest gym markets in the world. We think that this curiosity to know more about themselves is what makes people take the tests.

I actually don’t know many people who have done a whole-genome test. It’s usually only done with patients that have a rare disease and need a diagnosis.

For healthy people, there are two large companies that offer whole-genome test kits. I sent my samples to one of them to understand how they interpret it, but they only looked at rare diseases and pathological variants that already have a clinical description. There were no polygenic risk scores and generally, they didn’t give much information.

Consumer genetic tests made by Genera are much more complete than whole-genome testing because they are focused on specific traits.

To answer your question, I don’t think that a layperson should take a whole-genome analysis right now because it’s a bit too early. I recommend taking some consumer genetic tests like the ones offered by Genera.

Here’s a view of Genera’s nutrition report:
Genera's Nutrition report

How does DNA testing improve doctors’ decision-making with regard to patients?

We offer pharmacogenomics testing, but many physicians aren’t utilizing it as of yet. Some medical fields such as Nutrology, dermatology, and psychiatry have more interest in genetics than other physicians that might not know enough about it.

The way we see it, Pharmacogenomics is really important for the medical field as it’s purely science-based. Some studies have questioned the efficacy of pharmacogenomics, but whether they believe it or not, we now have evidence that it just works.

Pharmacogenomics is very new and doctors should aspire to understand it and be more comfortable using it. I think in some time, we’ll see more physicians taking advantage of pharmacogenomics testing.

Given the inarguable benefits, how come Pharmacogenomics is still lagging behind the rest of the medical world?

I believe it’s normal for some doctors, especially the older ones, to have prejudice and be less open to using anything that is new and innovative. Especially here in Brazil, the medical community is very conservative. From med school through residence in the hospital, the entire life of physicians here is very traditional.

Since the clinical evidence is somewhat incomplete, some argue that it may not be so useful, but if you take it, some of the arrays are very actionable and usable.

Genetic researchers, including the larger players in this market, should educate the medical community to better understand genetics and show doctors the immense impact it can have on patients’ treatments.

As for the price, Brazil is a poor country and only a small fraction of the population can even afford genetic testing. Even a $50 test is expensive for Brazilians. We want to offer whole genome and exome sequencing, but currently, they are too expensive. Insurance companies won’t cover it and neither will the government for a healthy person. In such circumstances, it is up to the doctors to balance it out and decide whether it is worth it for someone to pay that amount.

One of our goals at Genera is to lower the price of genetic testing so it’s affordable to everyone.

How do you expect AI to impact consumer genomics?

Many of the new polygenic risk scores are AI-based. AI will definitely be a game-changer in this field. In the past, they had to understand the weight of each variant in the disease and try to calculate it. AI can process huge volumes of data much more effectively than humans, so I believe it will always produce better results. It’s only a matter of time until doctors start to recognize the potential of polygenic risk scores because they will see that it actually works. I believe it will be a game-changer.

How do you envision the future of Consumer genomics?

Even though we work with clinical physicians, I really believe that the path to follow is direct-to-consumer. Thanks to the internet, any layperson can educate themselves and reach a reasonable level of understanding their DNA data.

Of course, it’s important to have a doctor or other specialists to clarify grey areas and answer some questions, but a direct approach is much more scalable.

The number of direct-to-consumer tests taken in the US and Europe has been growing exponentially over the last few years, even if Covid had slowed it down a bit.

Doing a whole-genome test with real interpretation, understanding rare variants and how they may be contributing to genetic diseases within the family is still only possible if you have a professional to guide you, but we are definitely getting closer.

I did my whole genome here in our lab and despite my professional and academic background, interpreting and understanding the results was extremely challenging. I looked for some variants, but it had so much information that it was hard to know what to focus on.

To overcome this challenge, we need to create clear workflows that make it easier to understand. Beyond the clinical research, consumer genetics companies would be wise to invest in UX and content that allows consumers to digest this information.

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About Author
Ditsa Keren
Ditsa Keren

Ditsa Keren is a technology blogger and entrepreneur with a strong passion for biology, ecology and the environment. In recent years, Ditsa has been specializing in technical and scientific writing, covering topics like biotechnology, algae cultivation, nutrition, and women's health.

Ditsa Keren is a technology blogger and entrepreneur with a strong passion for biology, ecology and the environment. In recent years, Ditsa has been specializing in technical and scientific writing, covering topics like biotechnology, algae cultivation, nutrition, and women's health.