Consumer genomics company 23andMe has seen a big spike in inbound requests from researchers that want to study its 1.2 million-strong genetics database. Now, it's collaborating with one of its biggest research partners yet: The governor's office in Nevada.
The goal for the joint research study is to work with local partners to better understand the various population-wide health risks facing citizens in a state that ranks 37th for public health. 23andMe is offering free access to its $199 spit test to the first 5,000 Northern Nevadans who qualify for the trial. In return, they'll receive a report on their ancestry and some health traits, including whether they carry a genetic risk for disorders like cystic fibrosis.
Those who sign up won’t do the test from home. Rather, they’ll show up in person to the Renown Medical Center to watch an instructional video to better understand the saliva collection process, register for an account, and share a sample. The genetic data can be downloaded securely at a later point from 23andMe, and it will be stored for research purposes at the Desert Research Institute.
23andMe was eager to take this study to Nevada, according to a spokesperson, as it's "socio-economically diverse and ethnically representative of the Southwestern United States, and includes multiple generations of the same family."
The first participant to participate in the trial is Governor Brian Sandoval (R.), who was incidentally the first Republican to endorse the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. "Nevada’s greatest resource is, and always has been, our people," he says in a statement, adding that he believes the study will create "incredible potential for new scientific discoveries and encourage citizens just like myself to take a proactive role in self-care and ultimately change the way we think about our health moving forward."
The governor’s office is providing financial support to the initiative as part of its ongoing "Precision Medicine" efforts. It is following in the footsteps of the White House's $215 million initiative, which involves treating and preventing disease by considering each individual's genes, environment, and lifestyle.
23andMe's is calling on research partners such as Reno, Nevada-based health system Renown Health, as well as the environmental research group Desert Research Institute, to help it study issues such as the effect of air quality on Nevadans and their risk for diabetes and other diseases. The researchers are starting with a small cohort of study participants, but they hope what they learn will be a window into better understanding the major population health risks facing Nevada’s approximately 2.8 million residents.
For Renown Health, it's far more than just a research study. Guided by the results, CEO Anthony D. Slonim says he aims to use predictive modeling to understand disease across a population based on a range of demographic factors, including age, gender, or location. The company is providing approximately 300,000 de-identified medical records that are at least five years old for the study, and its foundation is also funding the trial.
"Together we want to change health and health care in our state—from a state that has struggled to get out of the lowest quartile of health rankings to one that is a role model for health innovation," Slonim says. "We can begin to understand how environmental factors can help predict who may be at risk, allow for quicker diagnoses, and encourage the development of more precise treatments," adds Joseph Grzymski, the principal investigator of the study.