Mountain View Voice

- February 6, 2009

Genetic mockup

For $399, Mountain View company 23andMe will decode your genome

by Angela Hey

Do you want to know whether you are at risk for a specific disease? Are you curious about your heritage? 23andMe, a Mountain View startup, may have just the service for you. Last year, Time Magazine named its service "Invention of the Year."

23andMe was founded by biopharma executive Linda Avey and healthcare investor Anne Wojcicki, who is wife of Google founder Sergey Brin. Google, Genentech, New Enterprise Associates and Mohr Davidow are investors in the company.

For $399 you can find out your approximate risk for specific diseases, where your ancestors came from and how similar your genome is to that of your friends. 23andMe analyzes 600,000 data points, technically SNPs — single nucleotide polymorphisms — or DNA sequence variations, on the human genome. A lab analyzes your genome from a saliva sample.

The best way to understand the service is to try the online demonstration at www.23andMe.com. A hundred and fifty years after the father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel, was experimenting with peas, the demo shows results for a fictional couple, Greg and Lilly Mendel. Lilly Mendel has a higher than normal risk of getting psoriasis, a disease that gives you itchy skin. 23andMe has done an excellent job in creating highly readable reports that describe the disease, show the progress of research and give links to support groups.

The service also tells you which diseases you are less likely to get. We see how Greg Mendel's genome compares with those of his relatives. No surprise, it was most like those of his children. A report also shows his ancestors came from Europe.

The last five years have seen incredible breakthroughs in genomics. According to Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, almost all diseases, except those resulting from trauma, are to some extent influenced by our genes. In just the last two years, genetic codes have been linked to many diseases. A recent Boston University paper suggested that by 2012 genetic testing would be so commonplace that presidential candidates would need to reveal an analysis of their genomes and their risk for diseases.

Alex Wong, director of products, says that 23andMe is building a consumer platform that brings people together based on their genetic information. Besides a strong consumer emphasis, the company helps research institutions like the Parkinson's Institute find genetic patterns in Parkinson's disease sufferers. Avey announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the company is partnering with Swiss open source biotech company mondoBIOTECH to build databases for researching rare diseases.

Some doctors are concerned that the "worried well" will be attracted to personal genotyping services, resulting in a possible increase in psychosomatic patients. They advise people to undertake genetic analysis with the help of a medical doctor who can assess lifestyle, current physical condition and family history and prescribe the specific genetic tests required.

Other doctors like to treat informed patients who take responsibility for their health seriously. Personal genomics is a major breakthrough that, together with home health tests, online consultations and preventative medicine, will change the doctor-patient relationship. Doctors, not just genetic counselors, will need training in personal genomics. Patients will need to decide whether to be tested, and if so whether they want to share the results with their doctor, or their online friends — or the whole world.

You can keep your genetic information totally private, or you may wish to share it with your family or with the wider public. Wong envisions a day when people will share genomic information on sites like Facebook. Whereas I don't mind sharing my photos on the Web, I might be more wary of sharing my genetic information.

Angela Hey can be reached at amhey@techviser.com.

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