On November 22, 2013, the Food and Drug Administration flexed its regulatory muscle by sending a warning letter to a genetic-testing company that goes under the stylish name of 23andme. The object of FDA scorn was a diagnostic kit that the tech company, backed by among others Google and Johnson & Johnson, sold to customers for $99. The kit contained an all-purpose saliva-based test that could give customers information about some 240 genetic traits, which relate to a wide range of genetic traits and disease conditions. The FDA warning letter chastised 23andme in no uncertain terms for being noncooperative and nonresponsive over a five-year period in supplying information that the FDA wanted to evaluate its product as a Type III device under the Medical Devices Act.
Legal Regulation of 23andme There is no doubt that the FDA is on solid legal ground. This case is not like the processes involved in Regenerative Sciences, LLC v. United States, where the FDA asserted that physicians' use of certain stem-cell procedures for joint disease involved the use of a drug that required FDA approval before it could be approved for use. In an earlier essay for the Manhattan Institute, I argued that this classification was in fact both legally incorrect and socially mischievous. In this case, the legal arguments are not available to 23andme because the current definition of "medical devices" covers not only those devices intended for use on the human body, but also those used for the diagnosis of disease. The Type III classification means that this device has to receive premarket approval from the FDA, which in turn requires that it be shown to be safe and effective for its intended use. Getting approval under this standard is arduous business, because any such approval must be for each of the tests separately. 240 tests thus require that number of approvals. The costs are prohibitive, and the delay enormous.
The FDA Warning Letter is significant both for what it says and for what it does not say. On the former, it details all the various steps that the FDA has taken in order to help shepherd 23andme through the FDA's processes, including the types of warning that the products should contain, and the various modifications that could be introduced in order to mitigate the risks of its use. It then notes that 23andme has done little to take advantage of the assistance offered to it. Indeed, worse, it has simply gone about its business selling the kits, without so much as a bow in the direction of the FDA.