My bright young niece is graduating from college this June, and my thoughts frequently turn to the question of where she will find her first job. Back in the 19th century, author Horace Greeley opined “Go West, Young Man”. Now I would advise my niece, “Go Sequence, Young Woman”. OK, she’s an English major, but I’m sure there would be a place for someone with her smarts and writing skills in the booming gene sequencing field.
What’s made me a promoter of job prospects in gene sequencing? Genentech, one of the those biotechs Seattle allowed to slip away to California, announced on 1/6/15 a gene sequencing deal with 23andMe, Inc, the leading “personal genomics” company. 23andMe will share with Genentech genomic and phenotypic data in its database from 12,000 volunteers with Parkinson’s Disease, Genentech hopes to sequence the entire genomes of some 3000 patients, with their consent, and and use that data to look for new therapeutic targets that could treat Parkinson’s. After two years, the data will be made available to the rest of the research community.
With roughly a million PD patients in the US, a new PD drug could be real money for Genentech. Hope so – consider the amount of money they’re paying 23andMe: $10 million initially and up to $50 million in future milestones.
Who’s 23andMe? And what is “personal genomics”? This company pretty much invented the concept when it was founded in 2006 — you spit on the paper, send it off to the lab, and poof, before you know it, your whole genetic code is sent to you. The results originally included analysis about your ancestry and your genetic risks for various diseases, but this rather casual approach to serious health info eventually earned the company a wrist slap from the Food and Drug Administration in 2013. FDA was concerned that users of their $99 genetic kit might act on the company’s data analysis by undergoing unnecessary procedures — like MRIs and mastectomies — or feel a false sense of complacency towards their health risks. Go to 23andMe’s website these days and you will get the alert: “23andMe provides ancestry-related information and uninterpreted raw genetic data. We no longer offer our health-related genetic report.
So, it appears that 23andMe has turned its focus from consumers to doing what it does best: accumulating and analyzing a whole bunch of genetic data. 23andMe has a database of genetic data from more than 650,000 people. The company will set up a Research Portal that will allow researchers to quickly run queries on more than 1,000 diseases, conditions, and traits to identify new patterns and connections. In addition to Genentech’s deal for PD research, 23andMe has signed a deal with Pfizer for research on lupus patients, and has signed 12 other partnerships with private companies and universities (not yet publicly disclosed).
Fighting Parkinson’s is a special concern of 23andMe’s CEO, Anne Wojcicki. Her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, discovered from a 23andMe test that he carries autosomal-dominant mutation in the LRRK2 gene, putting Brin at risk for PD, a disease his mother has. The couple, who are now separated, have donated more than $150 million to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (Wow — the total raised since 2000 by the foundation is $450 million.)
In 2009, 23andMe launched a campaign to invite PD patients to send in their saliva for analysis—free of charge—to build a genetic database. No, I did not volunteer any spit (but I may in the future). I touched on the company in a blog post back in 8/2013. At the time, they seemed like a flaky outfit with weird “discoveries” from their PD database. My personal favorite: “Those with Parkinson’s were less likely to have sky-dived or had liposuction, but more likely to prefer sweet foods over salty ones.”
I can’t believe Parkinson’s is entirely due to genetic mutations (otherwise, shouldn’t I have a family history of Parkinson’s?), but teasing out genetic patterns can only help find cures for Parkinson’s. And in the meantime, I’ll advise my niece to read some biotechnical news blogs in between the senior projects and Jane Austen novels.