When 23andMe launched its first product—a mail-order test that analyzes DNA from a saliva sample—it was aiming to help people take better control of their health. Now, as the company is beginning to get FDA approvals to tell consumers if they carry genes for particular diseases, 23andMe is also taking a new direction: The company wants to use the same genetic data to make better drugs.
"I really want to prove that we can revolutionize drug discovery, in almost a Moneyball kind of moment," Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, told a crowd at Civic Hall at Fast Company's Innovation Festival. "Having a human database can give us so much of an edge—we can do it so much faster and so much more inexpensively."
Right now, despite the billions spent to develop drugs, once a drug is approved, relatively little is known about how consumers are actually using medications and how well different people respond to a drug in real life.
"Most medications don't work effectively for a lot people," Wojcicki said. "Everyone in the room, I guarantee, has taken a medication and it didn't work. Or had a severe adverse reaction, or it wasn’t a good experience…That's exactly what we need to change."
By following patients as they use a drug and collecting detailed data—or better understanding the genetics behind a particular disease—drugs could be tailored to work better. Prescription bottles might eventually include genetic details on the label.
If big data can be used in the rest of our lives—such as marketing products to us at chain stores—why not harness it for healthcare as well? "We don't know much about health...It's crazy to me that in this world of electronic medical records, Walmart has so much information about how we shop, but no one has that information about our health," Wojcicki said. "Why can't my doctor say, 'Wow, Anne, based on your lifestyle and behavior, you're five years from being diabetic.' But I can go to Target and they know exactly what I'm going to buy."
While there are challenges—like how to ensure that genetic data stays private ("The reality is people have to get comfortable with the cloud," Wojcicki said), the company is moving forward in making big data-designed drugs a reality. They hired an executive from Genentech earlier this year, and now they're building out a lab.
There will also undoubtedly be regulatory challenges that come from doing things so differently, but Wojcicki said laws are meant to evolve, and it's time for change in the industry. "The drug discovery process is so broken," she said. "The pharma industry is one of the few industries that comes up every year and brags about how much worse they got—like, now it costs $2 billion to make a drug, and it was a billion 5 years ago. We have this hypothesis that if we had so much information, we could really change it."