The work of PreventionGenetics
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The mission of PreventionGenetics can be summed up simply. The company strives to prevent disease and disability through genetic testing.
PreventionGenetics opened in 2004 when Dr. Jim Weber left his role as a senior research scientist at the Marshfield Clinic Medical Research Foundation.
Weber said in starting the company he had two main objectives.
“One was to provide continuing employment for the people in my laboratory at the time, and the other reason was to try to make clinical genetics move along a little faster,” Weber said.
Weber noted that small companies have the advantage of being more nimble than larger organizations as they can adapt to changing technology faster. Currently, PreventionGenetics employs about 105 people.
PreventionGenetics sequences individuals’ DNA in order to develop a genetic map of who that person is and what diseases they may be susceptible to with the ultimate goal of arming health care professionals with as much knowledge as possible in planning the care of that person.
“The earlier a disease, a health problem in a patient is correctly diagnosed, the better that patient will be in terms of the management of their disease. What’s bad news for the patient is when the diagnosis does not come early and then they, basically, the physicians need to resort to treating symptoms, which is not nearly as good as treating the base cause and understanding the base cause of the disease,” Weber said.
Weber said there are many applications of this type of work, but he highlighted cancer in particular.
“There are lots of women today who undergo breast cancer gene testing, and some of those who test positive will have their breasts removed surgically, mastectomies. There’s a good example, a near perfect example, of prevention of disease through DNA testing,” Weber said.
Bjorn Niskanen, a PreventionGenetics DNA lab technician, said that the pinnacle of this type of work would be “eventually having a child’s DNA sequenced directly after birth.” The medical community would then have a vast base of knowledge and understand exactly what to look for and be aware of when caring for each individual.
Weber added that having the DNA of nearly every person in the world sequenced shortly after birth is potentially not so far away.
“It’s already happening. There are already maybe a few hundred thousand people worldwide who have had their genome sequenced. So it’s not a tiny number. Soon that will be in the millions, and then we’ll go on from there.
“So it’s happening already on a relatively small scale. It’s not a large fraction of the population but still many individuals. Some people think (having every person’s genome sequenced is) five years away. Some people think 10. I think it’s probably, I’m not sure, but more like 20 or 25 years,” Weber said.
Weber points to the introduction of “NextGen” sequencing as one of the major advancements in the history of PreventionGenetics.
Niskanen described NextGen as “looking at a wider scope of the genetic makeup of an individual. This technology requires fewer resources than traditional methods and allows us to keep our prices low. This is particularly advantageous when the genetic markers of diseases or disorders may be located in numerous places of the genome.”
He added, “It doesn’t quite allow us to look at the whole or entire genome in its perfect completeness, per se, at once due to technical reasons, but we are able to look at a much larger area. Future technology does have promise to potentially look at the whole genome without extra work to fill in the gaps, so to speak.”
PreventionGenetics provides tests for hundreds of healthcare facilities worldwide. The operations of the company recently moved into a 50,000 square foot facility, which had its dedication ceremony in October of 2013. The new building is located in the Mill Creek Business Park. More information is available at http://www.preventiongenetics.com/.