Genetics as a Guide
Global drug giant GlaxoSmithKline is investing $300 million in 23andMe, to utilize the consumer genetics company as an exclusive collaborator to facilitate genetics-driven drug research, reported Meg Tirrell of CNBC. UK-based GSK is embarking on a four-year collaboration to discover medicines using human genetics as a guide and could extend the partnership for an additional year. The funding and proceeds will be split equally.
Under new Chief Scientific Officer Hal Barron, a drug industry veteran, GSK embarks on a new research strategy that focuses on the immune system, genetics and advanced analytics and technology, Tirrell explained. She added that other pharmaceutical companies have looked to genetics to improve drug development: Amgen bought Iceland’s deCODE Genetics in 2012 for $415 million to take advantage of its genetic database, and Regeneron teamed up with Geisinger Health and the UK Biobank for the same reason.
Because 23andMe, which offers customers a look at their genetic makeup using saliva tests sent by mail, has 5 million customers, it has a larger DNA database than databases usually available to the scientific community. The direct-to-consumer genetic testing company charges $199 for certain health and ancestry data ($99 just for ancestry), according to Tirrell’s story, and 80 percent of the people in the database have agreed to participate in research.
While 23andMe lacks the traditional health records that a system like Geisinger does, the company does conducts surveys of its users, and says that, on average, one person in its database contributes to 200 different research studies. However, customers can opt out at any time. Focused on its own drug development, 23andMe hired Genentech veteran Richard Scheller in 2015 as chief scientific officer and head of therapeutics.
Together, the companies aim to use 23andMe’s genetic database to improve selection of drug targets, finding medicines that are more likely to work and carry a lower safety risk. The collaboration is also designed to speed identification and recruitment of patients for clinical trials.
"By working with GSK, we believe we will accelerate the development of breakthroughs," 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki said.
According to an article by Rachel England in Engadget, the first project will look into potential treatments for Parkinson's disease, based on a gene called LRRK2. A recent study indicated that the LRRK2 gene may play an important role in the disease, even among those without gene mutations, demonstrating the value of having such a large DNA sample. The partnership "gives us the best chance for success" in tackling these kinds of health issues, Wojcicki said.
Not everyone agrees. Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, thinks that the companies should pay the 23andMe customers whose DNA is used in research. Speaking to NBC News, Pitt asked, "Are they going to offer rebates to people who opt in so their customers aren't paying for the privilege of 23andMe working with a for-profit company in a for-profit research project?" Still, if the use of the database leads to the development of innovative treatments, “many would argue their 23andMe subscription was a small price to pay,” England concluded.