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23andMe Gives Pfizer Access To Its Genome Database

The partnership sounds like a win-win–so long as 23andMe’s client data stays anonymous.

23andMe Gives Pfizer Access To Its Genome Database
[Photo: Flickr user dennis crowley]

23andMe, the Mountain View, California-based company that offers a $99 consumer DNA kit, announced an agreement with Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and producer of drugs like Lipitor, Zoloft, and Viagra. As part of the deal, Pfizer will get access to 23andMe’s database of genetic information gathered through its DNA kits. 23andMe has genotyped more than 800,000 people, 80% of whom have consented to allow their genetic information to be used for research.

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23andMe is prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration from offering genetic analysis to consumers, though it can still provide ancestry and raw genetic information for $99. While those consumer fees have supported 23andMe in its early stages, selling access to its ever-expanding genome dataset has been a growth goal for some time.

“The long game here is not to make money selling kits, although the kits are essential to get the base level data,” Patrick Chung, a 23andMe board member and partner at the venture-capital firm NEA, told Fast Company in Oct 2013. “Once you have the data, [the company] does actually become the Google of personalized health care.”

23andMe president Andy Page went further, saying in 2013 that the increasingly massive customer genetics dataset would result in more “research partnerships where we get paid well for it.”

23andMe and Pfizer will cooperate in several research studies and clinical trial recruitments, including a 5,000-person study to genotype for lupus. This isn’t the first partnership between 23andMe and Pfizer, as it previously teamed up on a planned 10,000-person inflammatory bowel syndrome study that has signed up 4,000 individuals since August 2014.

The partnership with Pfizer is one of 14 the DNA kit company made in 2014, 23andMe director of Business Development Emily Drabant Conley told Bloomberg News, though only a few of these deals are currently public. Last week, 23andMe announced a collaboration with the Roche Group’s Genentech to generate whole genome sequencing data for about 3,000 people in 23andMe’s Parkinson’s disease community. According to Bloomberg News, Genentech is paying 23andMe $10 million up front and up to an additional $50 million if the deal hits certain milestones.

Of course, while many of 23andMe’s customers have consented to be included in research, it’s one thing to be used in a study and another to be sold to a pharmaceutical giant. 23andMe promises that it only gives customer data after it has “been stripped of Registration Information and combined with data from a number of other users sufficient to minimize the possibility of exposing individual-level information while still providing scientific evidence.” Minimize, but not guarantee anonymity.

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