Why 23andme represents an important new approach to speeding a cure for PD and other diseases

Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin, together with Larry Page, co-founded Google. Today, Brin serves as President of Google's parent company. According to Forbes List October 2016, he is the 12th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of US$39.2 billion.

In May 2007, Brin married biotech analyst and entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki who, along with two others, launched the personal-genomics startup 23andMe, which sells DNA test kits and helps users interpret their traits and health conditions. The company is named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell. Its saliva-based direct-to-consumer personal genome test was named Invention of the Year by Time magazine in 2008.

Importantly, 23andMe has identified a gene that could reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease. Academics "jaws dropped" when they found out 23andMe had made a discovery of that caliber because most pharmaceutical companies keep data close to the chest so they retain a competitive advantage over other companies.

As it turns out, Wojcicki's husband, Brin, used the services of 23andMe and discovered that although Parkinson's is generally not hereditary, both he and his mother (who has been dxd with PD) possess a mutation of the LRRK2 gene (G2019S) that puts the likelihood of him developing Parkinson's in later years.

Not everyone with Parkinson’s has an LRRK2 mutation; nor will everyone with the mutation get the disease. But it does increase the chance that Parkinson’s will emerge sometime in the carrier’s life to between 30 and 75 percent. (By comparison, the risk for an average American is about 1 percent.) Brin himself splits the difference and figures his DNA gives him about 50-50 odds. He works on reducing the odds through exercise and caffeine.

Since learning that he carries a LRRK2 mutation, Brin has contributed some $50 million to Parkinson’s research, including tens of millions of dollars to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Most Parkinson’s research, like much of medical research, relies on the classic scientific method: hypothesis, analysis, peer review, publication. Brin proposes a different approach, one driven by computational muscle and staggeringly large data sets. It’s a method that draws on his algorithmic sensibility—and Google’s storied faith in computing power—with the aim of accelerating the pace and increasing the potential of scientific research. “Generally the pace of medical research is glacial compared to what I’m used to in the Internet,” Brin says. “We could be looking lots of places and collecting lots of information. And if we see a pattern, that could lead somewhere.”

In other words, Brin is proposing to bypass centuries of scientific epistemology in favor of a more Googley kind of science. He wants to collect data first, then hypothesize, and then find the patterns that lead to answers. And he has the money and the algorithms to do it.

Wojcicki said it's the first time a consumer-driven company has made a significant medical discovery like this. The company found the gene by collecting information from multiple individuals that were susceptible to the disease but were asymptomatic, and analyzing their genetic code.

"The challenge of health care has always been these fiefdoms and no one wants to share because they have their own data, but that's what we can disrupt," Wojcicki said. "The consumer has never been embowered, but we all have the potential to own our data and say 'I don't want to wait for pharma to come up with Parkinson's.''

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23andMe sold only raw genetic data and ancestry-related results in the United States due to FDA restrictions from November 22, 2013 until October 21, 2015, when it announced that it would resume providing health information in the form of carrier status and wellness reports with FDA approval. Wojcicki said they still plan to report on disease risk, subject to future FDA approval.

8 Replies

  • Thank you for sharing all of that... fascinating and hopeful!

  • It is fascinating - and frustrating

  • 23 and me does gene analysis free for Parkinson's patients. See here: 23andme.com/pd/

  • Park bear I have completed this trial, it was fast (about 20 minutes total) and the organization was great at answering my questions. Highly recommend participating in it (no travel). Thanks for posting this. I hope something great comes out of it.

  • Yes, I have also. Answering their questionnaire and some saliva is all it takes.

  • When I joined, some years ago, the signup was free to Pwp. Now it apparently costs $99. Whoops, park bear has a free sample kit site

    From the saliva sample they reported that my ancestors migrated across the top of Siberia and down the Scandinavian Peninsula. (my folks are Norwegian) . I received a number of inquiries from Norwegian families re: family ancestry. 23 and Me sends out some interesting periodicals.

  • I just did it in September and it was free based on my Parkinsons. The results are fascinating ; my saliva was tested for all types of disease markers as well as ancestry. It's rather fun and I highly recommend it.

  • I agree it was fun to read the results and a little surprising for me.

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