Bay Area DNA Decoding Company, 23andMe Gets More Personal
By Suvarna Bhatt, Feature Editor
SAN FRANCISCO – Google co-founder Sergey Brin candidly revealed on his personal blog last week that he carries one particular mutation of the LRRK2 gene – known as G20195 that is responsible for familial Parkinson’s disease. His mother is also affected by the degenerative brain disorder.
Brin’s discovery was made through 23andMe, the consumer-based DNA decoding company that his wife, Anne Wojcicki, launched last November along with Linda Avey in Mountain View, Calif.
Brin writes on his blog that “As a customer of 23andMe, I have always been excited about the product. I have found what pieces of DNA I share with various relatives. I checked whether other Brins were related…I also looked over the health related entries and found that my genetic risk for most diseases is modestly lower than average but for a few diseases it is modestly higher.”
He concludes his results leave him in a unique position. “I know early in my life something I am substantially predisposed to. I now have the opportunity to adjust my life to reduce those odds,” he writes.
Brin’s news came just a few days after 23andMe announced it slashed its gene testing services to $399, less than half its original price. In a press release, 23andMe said the price reduction is due to technological advancements by Illumina’s DNA Analysis Beadchips, which 23andMe uses to genotype customers. By offering services at a lower price, the company hopes to broaden the opportunity for people to participate in 23andWe, the research division of 23andMe.
Andrew Meyer, a business graduate from Pacific Union College is fascinated by the idea of personal gene testing. He raised enough money to have his genome decoded a few months ago when 23andMe’s services cost $999.
“I know a predisposition towards a certain disease doesn’t mean that you will get it,” Meyer said, “But if I have a predisposition I’d rather hear about it when I’m 23 than when I’m older and the predisposition turns into a disposition.” He looks forward to using 23andMe’s genome-based social network and sharing his results with other people.
Meyer is just the type of customer 23andMe is hoping to target. “We’re interested in working with the younger generation because we can start collecting information earlier and set up a long term relationship with them; they are also more open to sharing personal information,” Avey said.
Creating a centralized place where people can learn about their genetic information is exactly what 23andMe aims to do. The company has introduced a new forum for customers to learn and share their genetic insights on community pages on its website, http://www.23andme.com.
This social networking functionality gives customers the ability to create a profile, connect with others, share stories, ask questions about specific traits and ancestry groups and learn more about research studies.
While 23andMe says they are in the business of empowering individuals who want to learn more about their genetics, critics say they are mainly in the business of making money.
“23andMe seems to me more like an entertainment company, it’s sort of like a genetic Facebook,” said Dr. Robert Nussbaum, chief of medical genetics in the department of medicine at UCSF.
Nussbaum says companies like 23andMe wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for profit. But, he says there are companies out there that really focus on genetic variants that have medical significance and offer solutions like genetic counseling.
Still, he is concerned about the negative impacts genetic testing could have on people’s psychological status and the way they pursue their own medical health care. Nussbaum says customers could be misled to think they are not at risk for certain diseases and therefore, fail to carry out recommended screening or watch their diet and exercise.
He is certain the vast majority of people have no idea about the actual chances someone will inherit a particular disease. “Even if you’re carrying the variance, by no means does it mean you are going to develop the disease,” Nussbaum says. “And if you don’t carry the variance, it doesn’t mean you won’t develop the disease.”
Nussbaum does not recommend direct to customer genetic testing and says people are better off discussing their concerns with their doctors, or even better with a geneticist or genetic counselor.
Avey makes it clear that 23andMe is not a medical diagnostics company. Instead, she says they are essentially looking at snap shots of well-studied parts of the genome, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which for certain diseases are known to have variations.
“We’re more about giving you access to a good sampling of your genome and then comparing your data to large scale studies,” she says.
Experts at the company have pored over hundreds of studies and only a few of them have been determined to be strong enough to incorporate into their library of conditions, called Gene Journals. The result is that people have the ability to compare their data with cutting edge research. Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease are among the diseases 23andMe is screening for.
Avey emphasizes that results are presented to customers as purely research information.
“We have to still prove the clinical validity of the information, but it’s really at a point now where people can make decisions,” she said.
Ultimately, the company hopes to create greater awareness of risk factors and to take preventive and personalized steps to keep people healthier longer.
In the future, Avey says genotyping will be “just like taking blood pressure, or checking cholesterol, these are all bits of information that can fill out your health profile and hopefully make you more informed, as well as your doctor.”
She is hopeful that as genetics becomes more main-stream, more people will be educated about their personal genetics and less fearful.
It’s hard to tell what Brin’s motives for sharing his personal genetic testing results were. Besides plugging his wife’s company, his excitement of personal genetic tests may perhaps make people more intrigued about their own genes.
Brin’s original blog can be read at too.blogspot.com.
Suvarna Bhatt is a Feature Editor for BioSpace.com. Click here to contact her.