DTC genomics company 23andMe announced late Friday afternoon that co-founder Linda Avey was leaving the personal genomics start-up, effective immediately, to begin work on a new foundation focusing on Alzheimer’s disease. Kara Swisher at BoomTown has the full scoop, including copies of internal emails to 23andMe employees from both Linda Avey and the company’s other co-founder, Anne Wojcicki.
The announcement is certainly fertile ground for speculation. Avey’s own email begins by recognizing “that [23andMe] has reached a critical point in its growth where new leadership can take it to the successful heights we all think it can achieve.” Which at least prompts the question: Was there some element of the old leadership (i.e., Avey and Wojicki) that was deemed incapable of reaching those heights? There has been no public indication that the move is related to 23andMe’s current financing round, which has included investments from Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder and Wojcicki’s husband, and from Google itself.
What’s even more interesting than why Avey decided to leave is what she is planning for her next move. Avey is leaving 23andMe to start her own Alzheimer’s research foundation, with the aim of establishing “the world’s largest community of individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s.” Avey’s own ambitious goal is topped only by the goal that Wojcicki has set for her: “With Linda’s involvement, I believe that the [Alzheimer’s] community could be the first asymptomatic community to successfully develop preventative treatments.” Alzheimer’s is a debilitating disease that affects tens of millions of people worldwide each year, and one for which there is, as yet, no proven method of prevention or treatment. Preventative treatments for Alzheimer’s would be a true Research Revolution.
How does Avey plan to pull it off? There are few details at the moment for the proposed Alzheimer’s foundation, but the statements released on Friday by Avey, Wojcicki and 23andMe heavily emphasize a future of close collaboration between 23andMe and Avey’s new foundation (all three contain at least one variant of the phrase “leveraging the 23andMe platform”). 23andMe certainly has prior experience supporting its close associates in ambitious genetic research projects targeted at dread diseases—in March, 23andMe announced a large-scale study of the genetic bases of Parkinson’s disease with funding largely provided by Sergey Brin—and support for Avey’s Alzehimer’s initiative would be entirely consistent with 23andMe’s recent emphasis on DTC genomic research.
In what is hopefully a sign of many more successes to come, Avey’s Friday announcement was followed over the weekend by the publication in the journal Nature Genetics of the discovery of three new Alzheimer’s genes that are being touted as “the most significant genetic discoveries for Alzheimer’s in the 15 years since APOE4 was found…” and a “breakthrough” in Alzheimer’s research. As someone who has watched firsthand the destructive power of Alzheimer’s disease, I wish Linda Avey the very best of luck in her future work.