23andMe: The Google Genome Connection

By Kevin Davies

June 13, 2007 | I am ashamed to admit it took me a good half hour to twig the genesis of “23andMe,” an intriguing California software start-up. It really shouldn’t take a Ph.D. in genetics to recall that humans possess 23 pairs of chromosomes. Duh!

But a cute moniker isn’t the reason this 23andMe, which has been in stealth mode since its launch last year, suddenly finds itself in the media spotlight. A routine SEC filing last month heralded what a few bloggers had anticipated for a while: the inevitable — some might venture ominous — arrival of Google into the world of personalized medicine.

“Genetics is about to get personal,” declares the sparse 23andMe website. “Don’t panic, we’re here to help.” As I said, cute!

The fuss is that Google’s connection is both financial and familial. 23andMe was co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, a savvy healthcare investor who also happens to be the wife of Google co-founder, billionaire Sergey Brin. (The pair recently tied the knot in the Bahamas, again in stealth mode.) The SEC filing disclosed that Google invested $3.9 million in 23andMe’s Series A financing, along with Genentech. Brin’s earlier loan of $2.6 million to 23andMe has been repaid — a transaction reportedly approved by Google’s audit committee.

In a brief press release, Wojcicki briefly commented that her goal is to use proprietary software tools “to allow individuals to gain deeper insights into their ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits and, ultimately, the option to work together to advance the overall understanding of the human genome.”

That’s about as much as Wojcicki and her co-founder, Linda Avey, who previously held positions with Perlegen Sciences, Affymetrix, Spotfire, and Applied Biosystems, want to say for now. Avey declined comment until the company is closer to launching its service, probably this fall.

23andMe’s website simply says the firm will offer, “broad, secure, and private access to trustworthy and accurate individual genetic information. Combined with educational and scientific resources with which to interpret and understand it, your genome will soon become personal in a whole new way.”

A logical model here would be IBM’s excellent Genographic Project (see “Genes, Geography, and History,” Bio•IT World, June 2005), which allows volunteers to submit DNA samples and trace their genetic ancestry based on Y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA markers. 23andMe has much more ambitious goals in mind. Avey’s web profile gives her primary interest as, “the acceleration of personalized medicine, using genetic profiles to target the right drug to the right person at the correct dose.” Befitting a 21st century software company, another goal is seemingly to connect individuals via a social network, helping people to put their genomes “into the larger context of human commonality and diversity.”

One vision was recently spelled out by UMass Nobel Laureate Craig Mello, who told a visiting group of Google executives: “Someday, you’ll log onto Google genome and compare your own genome with other people’s, and maybe get information about what you should be doing and eating.” Perhaps he should have said 23andMe, but the point is well taken.

Getting Personal
The day isn’t too far off when 23andMe will be able to offer personal genome sequencing. Double helix pioneer James Watson (see p. 16) is not the first individual to have his full personal genome deposited in GenBank — J. Craig Venter scooped him last month. But Watson’s genome cost only $1-2 million, and dropping prices promise more to come. 

Aside from flying below the radar, 23andMe’s biggest short-term challenge may be keeping its top engineers and programmers from being poached by its infamous investment partner. 23andMe is offering new hires perks including, “complimentary beverages and honey roasted peanuts,” as well as “free genotyping for you and a family member or friend.”

But 23andMe’s intimate ties with Google will draw ever closer scrutiny. The same day the SEC filing confirmed the Google connection, British newspaper The Independent splashed a huge front-page headline — “Google Is Watching You” — reporting the search giant’s desire to gather and collate personalized user information. “The combination of genetic and Internet profiling could prove a powerful tool in the battle for the greater understanding of the behavior of an online service user,” the newspaper said. For many, that’s just a little too personal.

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