23andMe Looks Beyond Ancestry, To Drug R&D


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Mon, 09/18/2017
by Seth Augenstein - Senior Science Writer - @SethAugenstein

23andMe, the genetic testing company known for providing ancestral leads to the curious, has raised $250 million in investment from venture capitalists.

The new influx of funds will go toward massive research on the cheek swabs provided by millions of customers, with an ultimate goal of drug development, the company announced last week.

The quarter-billion dollars comes from new investor Sequoia Capital, along with newcomers Euclidean Capital, Altimeter Capital and the Wallenberg Foundation.

“The scale of the data – millions of customers and growing – and the unique combination of genotypic and phenotypic information provides an unrivaled research platform for insights into human health,” said Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia, in a statement on the new investments.

The company has nearly $500 million raised to date, including previous rounds of financing from entities like Fidelity Management & Research Company and Casdin Capital.


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The company’s Therapeutics Division was founded in 2015, and the company claims it is the world’s largest genetics research database. That division has already published research with an eye toward future drug development. For instance, they identified dozens of target genes that place patients at risk for Parkinson’s disease, in a paper also published last week in the journal Nature Genetics. The company claims more than 80 peer-reviewed papers to date, on the genetic foundations including melanoma and schizophrenia.

23andMe also was issued the first FDA approval for an “over the counter” genetic health risk reports for 10 conditions this year. The 500,000 genetic variants in a single 23andMe saliva sample can determine: Parkinson’s disease, late-onset Alzheimer’s, celiac disease, alpha-1antitrypsin deficiency, early-onset primary dystonia, factor XI deficiency, Gaucher disease type 1, Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, hereditary hemochromatosis, and hereditary thrombophilia.

But other genetic factors have also been explored in the massive genetics data trove, even the specific genes driving so-called “morning people.” In 2015, a major study of genetic ancestry from 23andMe data was undertaken by Harvard University researchers, which determined that there is much more mixture in Americans’ DNA than had been previously believed.

“We will continue to blaze the trail for our customers and lead the industry we’ve built,” said Anne Wojcicki, the founder and CEO of 23andMe.

Ethical questions have surrounded the predictive power of DNA, as genetic risk factors have come to be better understood. A 2013 analysis in the journal Progress in Neurobiology found that more care needed to be taken to understand the interpretation of genes, and specifically how the information should be acted upon by both doctors and patients.

“The implications of these research findings go well beyond the laboratory,” the authors of that study concluded.

23andMe announced they had genotyped their millionth customer in June 2015 – but that number has since doubled, according to the company. Some 85 percent of the customers opt into including their DNA in research databases.