23andMe Moves Into Serious Genomic Research

A new study using genes from the DNA-testing service made new discoveries about Parkinson’s. Now the company is poised to continue groundbreaking genetic research, at a pace much faster than traditional research.



Google-backed genotyping service 23andMe is a novelty for many people: Spit in a tube, send it to the company, pay $99 and find out what diseases you’re genetically prone to and whether you have any long-lost relatives who also use the service. But 23andMe was never intended to be just a vanity genotyping company, and now the startup is getting involved in serious disease research. This week, 23andMe published a paper highlighting two new areas of the genome involved in Parkinson’s–the first time the company has published a paper in a scientific journal.

The study, which has been in the works for two years, recruited over 3,000 Parkinson’s patients from the Internet to sign up for 23andMe–for a small fee–and answer a survey about the disease. 23andMe’s nearly 30,000 healthy controls were all taken from its customer database (users can opt to participate anonymously in studies since their genome information is already cataloged by the company).

The result: 23andMe discovered a few new genes associated with Parkinson’s. The study also discovered that late-onset Parkinson’s is explained at least one-quarter by genetics.”Each new gene you find adds a little bit more information to the
puzzle,” explains Nick Eriksson, a 23andMe principal scientist and one
of the study’s authors. Neither of these are monumental discoveries, but it’s monumental that they’re coming from a private company.

Now that 23andMe has a fairly large Parkinson’s community, the service will continue to release surveys and reports related to the disease. But the Parkinson’s research was just a proof of concept for 23andMe’s future plans. In many cases, the service may be able to complete research faster than with traditional methods. “A typical genetics study might assemble a
cohort of cases and controls, go to the trouble of getting genotype data, and at
the end of study what do you do with it? In our case, we have this
customer base and can continually go back to the same people and ask them new
questions about their health. We can use the database to study many things at
once,” says Chuang B. Do, the study’s lead author.

Next up, 23andMe also plans to create a patient community and release studies related to sarcoma, a rare blood cancer. The company also announced this week that it is working with Genentech to study the genetics of Alzheimer’s. “[Our research] is mostly about trying to drive biology and trying to find some nice new drug targets,” says Eriksson.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]


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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more