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23andMe partners with Genentech in Parkinson's disease deal

12 January 2015
Appeared in BioNews 785

23andMe, the personal genetics company, has announced an agreement with biotech company Genentech to identify new therapeutic targets for the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

Under the agreement, whole genome sequencing data for around 3,000 members of 23andMe's Parkinson's disease community will be used in research into the disease. At the end of the collaboration 23andMe says it 'will have the ability to conduct additional research on the data, as well as the ability to make the information available to Parkinson's researchers from around the world'.

'We are incredibly excited to work with Genentech again, and for the potential to make true breakthroughs in therapeutic research and treatment for Parkinson's disease,' said 23andMe's president Andy Page.

The agreement, which Forbes reports to be worth US $60 million, is said to be the first of ten such 23andMe deals that have been signed with large pharmaceutical and biotech companies. As a result of these deals, the companies will be able to make use of genetic and health data provided by customers purchasing 23andMe's 'direct-to-consumer' genetic testing kits in their research.

News of the agreement is likely to give rise to concerns regarding the privacy of 23andMe's customers' personal data; data of a uniquely predictive, ubiquitous and identifying nature.

Writing in Forbes, Matthew Herper notes: 'One big question behind 23andMe’s business model has always been whether customers will be happy or upset when they find out that they realize they have paid to be used in for-profit research projects.'

While 23andMe says that only 'de-identified individual-level data will be shared' under the agreement, some might argue that as its control of the data is lessened and, as its for-profit model continues to drive forward, customers could be left in a vulnerable position in the long-run.

The agreement has nonetheless come at an important time for 23andMe. While in December 2014 it launched its genetic testing kits in the UK, it had been suffering from a blow to its sales after the US Food and Drug Administration decided to ban the company from marketing its Personal Genome Service within the US in November 2013 (reported in BioNews 733), after it failed to produce sufficient evidence to support its claims.

The 23andMe-Genentech agreement - with its potential to accelerate treatments for Parkinson's disease - is still likely to be welcomed by many. According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, there are an estimated seven to ten million people living with Parkinson's disease worldwide. However, at present, there is no known cure or treatment to slow the disease; there are simply medications that are able to manage the disease's symptoms.

'Genentech is dedicated to bringing forth treatments for patients with unmet medical needs,' said James Sabry, senior vice president and global head of Genentech partnering. 23andMe's CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki similarly said, '23andMe helps individuals with debilitating disease participate in research and make advances happen faster.'

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