23AndMe is Going to Mine its DNA Data to Invent New Drugs

By Kate Knibbs on at

DNA testing startup 23andMe has been doing brisk business collecting genetic samples from over 800,000 customers. But the company this week announced a new plan that'll launch it into the big pharma world: 23andMe is going to invent its own pharmaceutical drugs using the data it collects from customer DNA.

This is a huge leap into a highly competitive business, but it's not out of the blue: 23andMe already announced a deal earlier this year with pharma company Genetech, to share customers' genetic information. This is just taking that kind of research and development in house. Maybe someone at 23andMe realised they could make lots more money by actually inventing drugs.

So this means there's a new, Google-backed company looking for medicines and cures for diseases, drawn from customers' genetic information. The built-in collection of DNA samples will give the company a solid research foundation, and 23andMe has hired Richard Scheller, who led Genetech's drug discovery team until recently, to lead the charge. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is also partnering with 23andMe for Parkinson's research.

There is a potential dark side to this, however: big pharma is big, big money—this is not some altruistic organisation, and it's a business that will run on customers' personal medical data. While 23andMe already asks for consent to sell customers' aggregated data to third parties, this type of research will probably require deep research dives into specific DNA samples.

If you're thinking about using 23andMe or you already have, this means the company is basically shifting from a DNA testing company to a drug-making company that uses cheap price tags to attract people into giving up their DNA for for-profit pharmaceutical research. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it results in real medical progress. It is, however, something people should consider.


[Image credit : Getty Images]