The blending of genomics with information and telecommunications technologies falls under the hot concept of "convergence", and last week's unveiling of the Gene Trust Project provided the latest apotheosis of the concept.

Indeed, the offer by DNA Sciences Inc. to allow altruistic members of the public to donate free DNA samples to the company's profit-making efforts manages to create a veritable stew of convergence, combining public commonweal, pharmacogenomics, web-based data collection, cross-marketing with Healtheon/WebMD, and a smattering of show business glitter.

The genotyping company last week launched its Gene Trust Project, which it called a "consumer research initiative designed to discover the links between genetics and common diseases." Visitors to the company's web site are told that "this is nothing less than a chance to participate in history." And show business personalities such as comedian Bob Saget (who lost a sister to scleroderma) and actress Shelley Fabares (whose mother was an Alzheimer's victim) were on the company's webcast talking about the importance of such research (a role they played for free).

"A consumer research initiative" sounds like something that might be run by an organization like Consumers Union, and DNA Sciences argued that the initiative allows ordinary people to participate in genetic research. But the enterprise raises two discomfiting issues that the company and industry would do well to ponder: the first has to do with the way in which informed consent is obtained, and the second has to do with who stands to gain.

The plan

Through its website, DNA Sciences is soliciting personal and family health profiles, which it pledges to keep confidential. If a profile matches one of the company's disease-associated genotype database needs, that individual will be asked to donate a blood sample. In this way, the company hopes to gather large numbers of patients for association studies - according to the website, DNA Sciences hopes to get hundreds of thousands of profile respondents, resulting in thousands of blood samples.