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23andMe Is Digging Through Your Data for a Parkinson's Cure

23andMe Is Digging Through Your Data for a Parkinson's Cure
From Wired - September 13, 2017

In 2006, when personal genomics company 23andMe launched from its offices in California, it charged $1,000 for a home spit kit and its top competitors were DeCodeMe and Navigenics. If youve never heard of those last two, thats because they never made it out of the aughts. And for a while there, no one thought 23andMe would either.

But today, the company is doing better than ever. On Tuesday, 23andMe announced a huge new funding round that brings its reported valuation up to about $1.75 billionbig even by Valley standards. And thats not because the company is making boatloads off of spit kits, now priced at a stocking-stuffer-friendly $99. While technically 23andMe is still in the business of consumer genetic tests, its time we start calling the company what it really is: a DNA data mining operation digging for the next big drug.

In 2015, 23andMe began inking lucrative research agreements with pharma giants like Genentech and Pfizer, in addition to launching its own R&D program to sift through DNA samples from its more than 2 million customers. With 85 percent of those people signing over their As, Cs, Ts, and Gs to science, its the worlds largest consented, re-contactable database for genetic research, according to the company. (Which is why Genentech paid $60 million for access to it.) And while 23andMe plans to put its data to work on many medical maladies, its always had its eyes on a cure for one in particular: Parkinsons. This week, they showed off the latest results of that effort, turning up more than a dozen new mutations associated with the disease.

Parkinsons is an incurable neurodegenerative disease that affects 1 million Americans. The biggest risk factor is age, but certain genetic mutations can increase risk, too. 23andMe reports two of them to its customers, which each increase the chances of developing Parkinsons between about 30 and 75 percent. (Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder and ex-husband of 23andMe founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki, carries one of those mutations, called LRRK2.)

But scientists dont know how the disease works, or even how much genetics play a role in its development and progression. Unlike Huntingtons or hemophilia, theres no single genetic signal for Parkinsons. 23andMe is betting that through brute-force pattern matching, it can map the constellation of genetic causesand potentially inform new treatments.

So on Monday, researchers from 23andMe, Genentech, and the National Institute on Aging published the largest meta-analysis of Parkinsons disease to date, using data from more than 425,000 individualsmore than three-quarters of whom were 23andMe customers. Building on a smaller study from 2014, the team compared genes from 6,476 self-reported Parkinsons patients with those of more than 300,000 disease-free 23andMe customers, confirming genetic variants already associated with the disease and turning up 17 new ones.

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