Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has pledged millions of dollars to fund a new research project investigating genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of Parkinson's disease.
Mr Brin will pay for 10,000 Parkinson's sufferers to have their genomes sequenced by the company 23andMe, a commercial enterprise co-founded by his wife Anna Wojcicki that offers a DNA screening service to look for genes associated with 106 hereditary disorders such as breast cancer and diabetes. The genetic information from Parkinson's patients will be compared with genomes from healthy individuals (other 23andMe customers who have given their consent) in order to try and identify new gene variants that predispose people to Parkinson's. Participants will also fill in questionnaires online about their lifestyle and details of their medical condition in the hope of pinpointing environmental triggers for the disease.
Patients will be recruited to the scheme through the US-based Parkinson's charities, the Parkinson Institute and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Britons can only currently participate if they are registered with one of these charities.
Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects movements such as walking, talking and writing. In most cases symptoms do not appear until the individual is in their 50s or older, although it is sometimes seen in younger people. Around 120,000 people in the UK have Parkinson's and around 1.5 million in the US. No single cause has been identified, and most scientists believe that many factors play a role in its development. Nine genes that predispose individuals to Parkinson's have already been identified, including a variant of the LRRK2 gene. Mr Brin discovered that he carries the LRRK2 gene variant when he had his genome sequenced by 23andMe last year, prompting him to invest in the new research scheme. His mother also has Parkinson's.
Identifying the underlying causes of Parkinson's will help the development of treatments for the disease. Mr Brin said: 'I kind of give myself 50-50 odds of getting Parkinson's in 20 or so years, 25 years...But I also give it a 50-50 shot of medicine catching up to be able to deal with it'.
The scheme, however, is controversial, as study participants are obliged to pay a token fee towards the sequencing of their genome - $25 for a service that would normally cost $399, with Mr Brin footing the rest of the bill. It is not usual to have to pay to be involved in medical research, but Ms Wojcicki explained to The Times newspaper: 'We want to screen individuals who take an interest, so having some sort of barrier where they pay a nominal amount should weed out the individuals who just pick it up because it's free... We want to make sure it's a community of individuals who are really vested.' There are concerns the fee will introduce a social bias into the selection of participants, and also that the self-reported questionnaire will produce unreliable information.