The pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline is investing US$300 million (£228m) in the DNA testing company 23andMe as part of a four-year collaboration that will give Glaxo access to the genetics firm's data resources.
23andMe's database contains about 5 million people's genomic information, and Glaxo intends to use this to accelerate its drug development programme.
Anne Wojcicki, chief executive of 23andMe, said: 'This collaboration will enable us to deliver on what many customers have been asking for – cures or treatments for diseases. By leveraging the genetic and phenotypic information provided by consenting 23andMe customers and combining it with GSK's incredible expertise and resources in drug discovery, we believe we can more quickly make treating and curing diseases a reality.'
23andMe has been offering direct-to-consumer genetic testing since 2006, initially only providing ancestry data to customers. It later established a therapeutics division in 2015, which focuses on drug discovery. Their test identifies variations in 700,000 areas across an individual's genome and they also collect information about the behaviour, health and even pain tolerance of customers.
Some have expressed concern about the commercial use or sale of participants' genomic data. The people whose data is being used do not stand to receive any share of the US$300m, nor any revenue from resulting drugs.
Peter Pitts, the president of the US Centre for Medicine in the Public Interest, said: 'When two for-profit companies enter into an agreement where the jewel in the crown is your gene sequence and you are actually paying for the privilege of participating, I think that’s upside down.'
Other concerns have centred on the ability of customers to keep their data private. Writing on the 23andMe blog, Wojcicki outlined that 23andMe's top priority would always be the consumer and that participants may opt in or out of the program at any time. However, if you consent to data sharing and subsequently opt out, your data will not be retrievable from those with whom it was shared.
A potential treatment for Parkinson's disease may be among the first targets of the collaboration. Glaxo has developed an inhibitor for the leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) receptor, which is implicated in the pathology of Parkinson's disease. A large cohort of participants with known and defined variants in the LRRK2 gene is required in order to test its efficacy as a treatment. 23andMe already has this data, which could be used to recruit study participants.