Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Emily Singer

A View from Emily Singer

Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Research

23andMe’s consumer-based approach to research seems to be working.

  • April 15, 2010

The California start-up 23andMe sells genome scans directly to consumers, offering analysis of disease risk, ancestry and other genetic factors via its website. People who buy the scan can also opt to do a number of different surveys, on everything from specific disease symptoms to whether or not one sneezes in response to sunlight.

Part of the company’s mission since it was founded in 2007 has been to leverage the data it collects from customers for research, looking for associations between specific genetic variations and diseases and other traits. The technology used to run the scans is the same as that used in many genomics research studies, giving 23andMe a genetic database that is similar to a research consortium’s (though certainly not as carefully controlled and selected.)

According to Nicholas Eriksson, a scientist at 23andMe who presented his research at the Network Biology 2.0 conference in Cambridge this week, 35,000 people have taken 23andMe’s test, and about 20,000 of them have filled out one or more of its 40 surveys. The company has more than 400 ongoing studies searching for the genomic basis for everything from flu symptoms and asthma to dry mouth after taking the allergy drug zyrtec and euphoria after taking codeine.

Many scientists have been skeptical of whether a self-selected group of consumers and their self-reported information can generate reliable genetic associations. But the company will soon be publishing a paper in PLoS Genetics describing the results of early studies. Eriksson said they were able to replicate a number of variants that had been previously linked to cholesterol levels, obesity and diabetes. They also identified a number of new variants linked to somewhat less serious characteristics, including the ability to smell asparagus metabolites in urine. “There have been many years of debate in the very serious world of asparagus research over whether this is an issue of production or detection,” said Eriksson. Researchers linked this trait to an olfactory area on chromosome 1, suggesting the latter.

The company’s most significant effort to date has focused on Parkinson’s disease. (23andMe’s cofounder Anne Wojcicki is married to Google cofounder Sergey Brin, whose mother suffers from the disease and who learned he has a genetic risk factor after taking 23andMe’s test.) The company offered its test to Parkinson’s patients for $25, generating what Eriksson estimates is the largest Parkinson’s database in the world. They identified four genes that had already been linked to the disorder, as well as four to five novel genes that they are now trying to confirm in other populations. We did this study much more cheaply than those carried out at medical centers using more traditional methods, says Eriksson. “You have to be willing to give up some pristine data quality to get access to more people.”

AI is here. Will you lead or follow? Countdown to EmTech Digital 2019 has begun.

Register now
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Print + All Access Digital.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

    The MIT Technology Review App

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.