How 23andMe Wants the Internet to Change Medicine

Genetic testing company 23andMe just scored NIH funding to develop web-based surveys it hopes will make personalized medicine a reality.



Genetic testing company 23andMe has a new project that aims to use web surveys to improve personalized medicine. The project, called “Web-based Phenotyping for Genome-Wide Association Studies of Drug Response,” has received $190,000 of money from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 23andMe announced this morning.

People, as you may have noticed, differ from one another. Some of us are tall, some short; some fat, some thin, and so on. Even some of the most bizarre, seemingly irrelevant traits–the inability to smell asparagus in urine, the tendency to sneeze when entering the sunlight–often have genetic markers etched into our DNA as a 23andMe study last summer found.

With the genome being such a wildly complex ecosystem, figuring out how different bodies react to different medicines becomes an enormous challenge. Not every medicine works for every person; indeed, one woman’s cure can be another man’s poison. This is where 23andMe’s web surveys come in. 23andMe wants to work with its customers, whose genetic data it already has on file, to map out how genetic variations among its customers correlate to reactions to different drugs.

23andMe’s project must go through several phases to get to its ultimate goal. First, it needs to develop web surveys to assess drug effectiveness and side effects for its customers. Second, it needs to test whether the web surveys yield accurate information, something it will do by checking whether its pilot survey replicates already known associations between certain drugs and genes. “If this project is successful in yielding replications, it will set the stage for rapid, well-powered and cost-effective research on many medications,” said 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki in a release. “In particular, it will facilitate research on new medications as they hit the market, serving to significantly advance personalized medicine.”

Not only that, though. If the project works, it may herald an entirely new way of conducting medical research. The old-school way of testing drugs involves rounding up people, bringing them in to a medical or research center, and barraging them with questions over a period of hours. It’s not an ideal situation–your sample is limited by geography; you rely on your subjects’ memory; and you demand too much information from them at once. Web surveys obviously dispatch with the geographic limitation, they potentially yield larger sample sizes, since they’re partly automated, and they allow participants to take breaks and check on answers to questions. Of course, there is a major filter that currently gets applied–23andMe’s customers necessarily have a certain level of income, to become customers in the first place–but spokeswoman Catherine Afarian tells Fast Company that 23andMe works with “a wide variety of patient advocacy groups and other organizations to underwrite the cost of testing for their members to enable improved sampling for specific patient populations.” 23andMe has put out studies showing that self-reported data from customers rivals that of data collected through traditional research methods.

If it pulls it off, then, 23andMe may not only help usher in an era of personalize medicine, but also one of personalized medical research. Says Afarian: “we believe that advancements in computing and the ubiquity of the Internet enable new approaches to research that are sound, valid and will be an important complement to traditional clinical trials. Our hope is that effective, more efficient models of research will be welcomed by the research community.”


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.