Genetic testing services have enticed millions of people with the promise of either discovering ancestry or predicting future diseases. According to industry leaders like the Google-backed 23andMe, submitting a swab of saliva can “help you understand who you are, where your DNA comes from and your family story.”
As comforting as that may sound, it doesn’t mention the other purpose of maintaining a massive DNA database: developing new drugs.
23andMe, for three years, has maintained a Research & Development unit, and Big Pharma is now buying in. GlaxoSmithKline is purchasing a $300 million stake in 23andMe, both companies announced Thursday. The first mission is to investigate a treatment for Parkinson's Disease, based on a common gene mutation linked to the disease.
23andMe boasts more than five million customers and says that 80 percent have agreed to allow their samples to be used for research. The company has reportedly published over 100 scientific papers linked to its internal data.
Customer consent and developing new treatments
Some experts have questioned whether consumers were aware that they opted into the research or who the new partnership will really benefit. (Customers who did not realize that they gave consent can log into their accounts and “opt-out” of future research.)
“Expensive new targeted ‘personalized’ treatments may be of benefit to those who can afford them,” medical ethics professor Jon Merz told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Experts have also noted that research participants are typically paid for their time. In this case, however, it’s the subjects who have paid for the privilege of submitting their own DNA.
In a public statement, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki claimed that “many” customers have been requesting treatments for diseases when they submit their samples.
“By leveraging the genetic and phenotypic information provided by consenting 23andMe customers and combining it with GSK’s incredible expertise and resources in drug discovery, we believe we can more quickly make treating and curing diseases a reality,” she said.
The announcement comes just as an immigration lawyer in Canada claimed that immigration authorities there are using DNA testing sites to deport people.
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