23andMe, the California company that sells DNA sequencing tests, announced yesterday that it will be entering the drug development business. Normally, this wouldn’t turn heads – there is no shortage of companies doing treatment research in America and worldwide, but none of those companies is sitting on a database of nearly 700,000 fully sequenced human genomes.
“I believe that human genetics has a very important role to play in finding new treatments for disease,” said Richard Scheller, 23andMe’s newly hired chief science officer and head of therapeutics in a statement Thursday. “I am excited about the potential for what may be possible through 23andMe’s database. It is unlike any other.”
Scheller previously led Genentech, the company widely considered to have founded the field of biotechnology (Fun fact: Genentech marketed the first synthetic insulin brand in 1982).
Founded in 2006, 23andMe became famous for its easy-to-use tests that could tell one their ancestry, whether or not they liked cilantro and what diseases they were at risk of developing. More than 850,000 people purchased the service, which debuted at $1000 per kit before dropping to $99. In 2013, however, the Food and Drug Administration sternly rebuked 23andMe for marketing a test with medical implications without seeking federal approval. 23andMe removed all health information from its tests, and was only late last month allowed to begin reintroducing tests for whether someone is a carrier of a genetic disorder.
While 23andMe had to stop giving medical information to consumers, it never stopped asking them if it could store their sequenced genomes for future use. About 680,000 people agreed, creating an easily accessible archive larger than all of its predecessors. By accessing this data, Scheller and other scientists could conduct instantaneous genome-wide association studies, which is essentially testing if traits are associated with specific genetic variation. These variations often take the form of single-nucleotide polymorphisms – single base pairs that are mutated from one person to another – making the accurate, whole-genome sequences of 23andMe so useful for study.
This won’t be the first use of 23andMe’s vast DNA database for drug research – in fact in January the company received $10 million from Genentech in a deal to sequence the genomes of people at risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. And the company has also allowed dozens of university researchers access to its data for free.
Don’t expect significant results soon, though – genome-wide association studies are notoriously difficult because of the still largely unknown interactions between many genes that cause traits. At least 16 separate genes seem to factor into one’s eye color, and scientists still aren’t even sure what they all are. Meanwhile, more than 500 specific genetic mutations have been linked to cancer.
23andMe has experienced this difficulty first-hand – a Parkinson’s disease breakthrough that the company’s co-founder bragged about in 2011 didn’t pan out. But that shouldn’t dampen the excitement about this news, because genomics is truly the frontier of drug and therapy development, and 23andMe just built a really big fort there.