DNA testing startup 23andMe has been doing brisk business collecting genetic samples from over 800,000 customers. But the company just announced a new plan that'll launch it into the big pharma world: 23andMe is going to invent its own pharmaceutical drugs using the data it collects from customer DNA.
This is a huge leap into a highly competitive business, but it's not out of the blue: 23andMe already announced a deal earlier this year with pharma company Genetech, to share customers' genetic information. This is just taking that kind of research and development in house. Maybe someone at 23andMe realized they could make a buttload more money by actually inventing drugs.
So this means there's a new, Google-backed company looking for medicines and cures for diseases—on the backs of customers' genetic information. The built-in collection of DNA samples will give the company a solid research foundation, and 23andMe has hired Richard Scheller, who led Genetech's drug discovery team until recently, to lead the charge. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is also partnering with 23andMe for Parkinson's research.
There is a dark side to this, however: Big pharma is big, big money—this is not some altruistic organization, and it's a business that will run on customers' personal medical data. While 23andMe already asks for consent to sell customers' aggregated data to third parties, this type of research will probably require deep research dives into specific DNA samples.
Update: 23andMe wrote me to clarify that they won't dig into de-aggregated DNA without specific permission first, which is fantastic. "The therapeutics group will conduct research according to the protocol in our research consent agreement. This means they'll study aggregate, de-identified data. For individual level data, that would require additional consent, per our consent agreement," a spokesperson wrote.
If you're thinking about using 23andMe or you already have, this means the company is basically shifting from a DNA testing company to a drug-making company that uses cheap price tags to attract people into giving up their DNA for for-profit pharmaceutical research. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it results in real medical progress. It is, however, something people should consider.
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