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Thousands of people are getting genetic tests, for everything from their cancer risk to their likelihood of passing on a disease to a child.
But many doctors aren't adequately trained to interpret these results, or tell patients how to act on them. And genetic counselors -- who do have that knowledge -- are in short supply. There are only about 4,000 genetic counselors in the country today. That's one for every 80,000 Americans. That means some patients have to wait months to get a consultation.
Start-up Clear Genetics, which launches this week after raising $2.5 million in financing, is trying to make genetic expertise more widely available.
The start-up has developed a conversational chatbot to guide a user through their results, collect information and review options for genetic testing, and answer questions about things like whether the test will be covered by insurance. If there's a need for additional support, the patient can then schedule a consultation with a human expert via video or in-person.
"We're finding that it's working really well with patients," said Moran Snir, Clear Genetics' CEO, who was previously a software engineer with the Israeli military.
Clear Genetics is working with several large health systems in the United States to test out a beta version of its product.
"I think this is a very good use for AI," said David Ledbetter, executive vice president and chief scientific officer at hospital network Geisinger Health System, in an interview with CNBC.
Ledbetter is running one of the largest genetics research studies in the country, which involves sequencing 250,000 patients' DNA and returning results that are deemed "medically actionable," meaning the patient can do something about it. It was a struggle to recruit 25 genetic counselors to serve these patients, said Ledbetter.
Geisinger hasn't yet rolled out Clear Genetics' app, as it's still in the experimental phase. But if the chatbot can sufficiently support even 10 percent of patients, he said, "it would be a spectacular success."
The cost of DNA sequencing has plummeted in recent years, enabling large-scale research studies and dozens of genetic-testing companies.
Many people will get a positive result. In some cases, there's a lot they can do to decrease the likelihood of getting sick.
"Having to talk to a genetic counselor every time we want information is not an effective use of these experts," Snir said.