Earlier this week 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based personal genomics company, was awarded its first patent: US Patent Number 8,187,811, entitled “Polymorphisms associated with Parkinson’s disease”.
23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki announced the issuance of the patent via a post on the company’s blog late Monday evening, attempting to strike a tenuous balance between her company’s oft-championed philosophical devotion to providing individuals with “unfettered access to their genomes” and its desire to commercialize the genomic information so many of those very same individuals have shared, free of charge, with 23andMe. With its new patent, 23andMe also injected itself into the middle of what Wojcicki herself described as the “hot debate” surrounding the patentability of “inventions related to genetics.” Wojcicki’s announcement appeared to catch more than a few of the company’s customers by surprise, sparking concern about the company’s intentions on 23andMe’s blog, Twitter and elsewhere, along with rapid and pointed commentaries from Stuart Hogarth and Madeleine Ball, among others.
Of the various questions asked of and about 23andMe and its new patent, these may be the three most common: Where did this patent come from, and why didn’t I hear about it before? What does 23andMe’s patent cover? How is 23andMe going to use its patent? Let’s take each question in turn.
Social media – including Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms – are widely credited with fundamentally altering the nature of political discourse and, in some instances, credited as catalysts of political revolution. But social media’s ability to affect change need not be limited to politics, as recent developments in the arena of personalized medicine and consumer genomics continue to demonstrate.
Social Media as a Research Tool. Last month, PatientsLikeMe, an online patient community, made headlines with a study published in Nature Biotechnology in which the company analyzed self-reported data from nearly 600 patients to demonstrate that the use of lithium had no effect on the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The study’s findings are valuable for ALS patients, who frequently experiment with unproven treatments in an attempt to slow progression of the degenerative disease for which there is not yet an effective therapy. But the long-term impact of the study’s methodological approach, which suggests “that data reported by patients over the internet may be useful for accelerating clinical discovery and evaluating the effectiveness of drugs already in use,” should be felt far beyond the ALS community.
This is the second of four related posts analyzing 23andMe’s decision to separate its health and ancestry DTC genetic testing services. For more please see 23andMe’s New Game Plan: What it Means for the Company and for DTC Genetic Testing, The Open Secret of DTC Medical Genetic Testing and DTC Genomic Research: Revolution or Minor Uprising?
An Unexpected Increase in Price. In considering 23andMe’s new model from the consumer perspective, the most surprising development is that the announcement comes with a price increase. With the steady drumbeat of stories heralding the approach of the $1,000 genome, and the consumer expectation that prices for established technologies are meant to fall, not rise, the price hike was unexpected.
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Should research participants have a right to their own genetic data? For a second consecutive day, that question is driving a public debate between healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente and DTC genetic testing company 23andMe.
Yesterday, Kathy Schaefer, executive director of Kaiser’s Research Program on Genes, Environment, & Health (RPGEH) took the floor to explain why the RPGEH was not structured to return genetic information to its participants.
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Is There an Obligation to Return Genetic Data to Research Participants? Kaiser Responds to 23andMe’s TEDMED Criticism
Earlier today, in the latest installment of the What ELSI is New? series, Daniel MacArthur asked a question that has cropped up repeatedly in recent weeks and months as part of the broader discourse surrounding genetic research and commerce: what rights should individuals have to gain access to their personal genetic or genomic data?
MacArthur’s position – that research participants should generally be provided with complete access to their own genetic data upon request – is one that continues to remain a minority position. It finds support in research initiatives such as the Personal Genome Project (PGP) and (to a lesser extent) the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative (CPMC), but returning research results has generally been eschewed by other large-scale genetic research projects, including Kaiser Permanente’s recently announced Research Program on Genes, Environment, & Health (RPGEH).
Last month, the Genomics Law Report examined the RPGEH and its reluctance to return genetic data to a participant population that is expected to quickly grow to 100,000 or more Kaiser patients. RPGEH’s decision not to return data to its participants was under the microscope again last week at TEDMED 2009 when 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki criticized Kaiser for planning to genotype RPGEH participants without offering them the ability to review their data.
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The first generation of Direct-to-Consumer genetic testing and sequencing was populated by companies such as 23andMe, Navigenics and deCODEme that offered genotyping for a limited set of conditions, focusing primarily on genealogy and monogenic traits.
As the cost of generating genetic data continued to decline new companies brought new commercial offerings to the table, including whole-genome sequencing from Knome and, more recently, Illumina, and an increasing focus on the genetics underlying complex diseases and traits.
Recruiting Customers as Research Subjects
Even more recently a new dimension to the field of DTC genetics has emerged: Direct-to-Consumer research. In May of 2008 23andMe’s founders laid out their vision for customer-driven research. 23andWe, as the company’s research arm is known, launched its first significant project in March of this year when, aided by financial support from Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and the husband of 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe announced a large-scale study aimed at the genetic bases of Parkinson’s disease. The study aims to recruit 10,000 patients with Parkinson’s disease to enroll. Participants in the study will receive 23andMe’s services for $25, a steep discount from the going rate of $399.
And on Tuesday, 23andMe announced what it is terming the “Research Revolution, a community outreach program that empowers people to drive the direction of genetic research.” In some ways this Research Revolution is genomic research meets American Idol, with the general public invited to vote by participating in the project and choosing from a list of 10 diseases to support. (Participation costs $99 for a stripped-down version of 23andMe’s service that does not include several key features, including ancestry information, carrier testing and access to the underlying raw genetic data).