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Is the future of pharma marketing in our DNA?

Mark Assenti|17th February 2014

Gene-targeted Pharma Marketing

Since the completion of the human genome project in 2003, scientists, governments and corporations alike have been thinking about how to use our most personal of information. Customer data is collected and used by almost every marketing department globally to better target audiences, so is it now time to take the next step, and add DNA to the pharma marketing mix?

UK Legislation

As of April 2013, the Clinical Practice Research Datalink was connected to a national genetics storage facility. Personal medical and genetic information is now available to Pharma companies at a cost for research purposes. The Prime Minister stated at the time that all data would be strictly anonymous and therefore of limited use within targeted marketing.

However, in a recent report, A Shift in Privacy Law, and the Attendant Risks, Edward Hockings, the Founding-Director of Ethics and Genetics, states that a Freedom of Information disclosure from the Department of Health confirms that patient identifiable information, such as postcode, can be accessed without patient consent:

…identifiable information may be provided through the consent of the citizens concerned or through legislation, such as Section 251 of the NHS Act 2006 can be used to authorise access for specific purposes.

Pharma companies are already allowed to contact people of genomic interest directly. Now that there are plans to commercialise this data, could this affect the way in which we approach healthcare marketing?

US Policy

In contrast to seemingly relaxed laws in the UK, the US enacted GINA (Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act) in 2008, possibly due to a larger emphasis on medical insurance in America. This legislation does not guarantee anonymity however, as shown by Yaniv Erlich, in his 2013 paper, Identifying Personal Genomes by Surname Inference. Using free, publically accessible internet sources, he was able to identify anonymous donors from their genomic information.

Gene-targeted marketing for Pharma

So, how would knowing a person’s genome affect how you market to them? Let’s take the example of a pharma company with access to a genomic database containing patient identifiable information. They sell medication that treats conditions with known genetic causes, for example; asthma. Specific genetic mutations that cause asthma are mapped to individual genes. The pharma company can run a database search for these mutations producing a list of names, addresses and contact information of potential customers, all with a genetic predisposition to develop asthma. This company now has the power to directly contact their genetic customer base.

This truly is gene-targeted marketing

Pharma marketing could become so specific to individual customers that efficiency would be increased exponentially as money wasted on reaching incorrect client bases would be slashed. As the field of preventative medicine grows, genomic information in the hands of the pharma industry could produce healthier populations, with people being treated before they become unwell.

Nevertheless, this information could be exploited.


There are two major ethical issues to address. Firstly, should the UK government give private organisations access to confidential data without consent? Secondly, should pharma companies use this information for marketing purposes? This second point is of most relevance to the pharma industry, and the answer certainly lies on a spectrum as opposed to a simple yes or no.

Do perfectly healthy customers want to be bombarded by marketing regarding weight loss medication, just because they possess a genetic mutation that causes 5% of individuals to become obese? Probably not. Would a customer like to receive information regarding preventative medicine and how to identify the symptoms of breast cancer because they have a 45-90% lifetime risk? It would be wrong to assume that the majority of this group would not benefit from this service.

Craig Venter discussed some of the reactions to the human genome project, in his Science magazine article, The Sequence of the Human Genome:

There are two groups of people. People either want to know the information or they prefer to live like an ostrich with their head in the sand, not knowing anything. The fear is based on the ill-founded belief that those who know the DNA sequence also know every aspect of life. …everybody thought that if you knew your genome, you would know when you would die and what you would die from. That is nonsense.

The future of pharma marketing

As to whether pharma will be able to implement gene-targeted marketing in the near future, we can’t say for sure, but this much is true:

  • Genomes can now be sequenced more quickly and cheaply than ever before
  • Genomic applications are ever expanding, from preventative medicine to family planning to genetic engineering
  • Genetic information is more widely available than ever before

Does this end with the pharma industry? By no means. A commercial optician could benefit from the contact details of individuals with the genetic variants that increase the chances of myopia tenfold. Whilst a company that produces hair straighteners or chemical hair straightening products would be interested in a database of people with the allele for curly hair.

The possibilities for gene-targeted marketing are endless; however, consumer reaction and the ethics surrounding this subject are still unclear. Most significantly, the main delay in advancing this field at themomentis the science.

Read more about genetics and the future of healthcare marketing innovation in the first issue of Perspective magazine, downloadable below.

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