Genetic testing is no longer just for scientists — now anyone can request a genetic scan with the click of a button.
Silicon Valley biotechnology firms are beginning to offer genetic analysis services to individuals that allow customers to find out if they are carriers of various genetic diseases and to trace their ancestral lines. Anne Wojcicki ’96, who co-founded the web-based genetic testing company 23andMe in April 2006, spoke in the Jonathan Edwards College Master’s House Wednesday about the impact of this new technology and consumer-driven service on the future of the health care industry. Before an audience of more than 40 students and faculty members, Wojcicki talked about how her desire to make a difference in health care and the public’s desire to share personal information led to the creation of 23andMe.
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“The goal of 23andMe is not just to be a simple diagnostic, it’s not just a simple genetics company,” Wojcicki said. “It really was a thorn in the side of the health care system to try to provoke change.”
People interested in learning about their own genetic make-up can order a DNA test kit from 23andMe’s online store. When the kit arrives, customers take a saliva sample and send it back to 23andMe by mail.
23andMe then look at over one million genetic markers in the sample to analyze everything from the customer’s eye color to the odds of contracting diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, according to the company’s website.
In addition to its commercial aspect, 23andMe also aims to improve understanding of genetic diseases and to promote the development of personalized medicine by creating a database of its customers’ genetic information that can be used by researchers, Wojcicki said.
Wojcicki pointed to the example of sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects bones, cartilages and muscles. While it would normally take years for a clinical study on sarcoma to get off the ground due to the small number of patients afflicted with the disease, 23andMe has managed to gather data from over 300 sarcoma patients in a period of months, Wojcicki said.
23andMe was founded after Wojcicki became dissatisfied with the lack of progress and true innovation in the biotechnology and medical industries, she said.
“Biotech is an unusual area because there is so much hype and it’s unclear whether any of these drugs or developments will actually materialize,” Wojcicki said. “At the same time, people started to develop drugs that I feel are not necessarily good for society.”
Wojcicki said she was inspired by the Wallenbergs’, a prominent Swedish family and her previous employer, philosophy of making investments that benefit society, as well as new social and media outlets like Facebook and YouTube.
As 23andMe and similar companies grow, Wojcicki said there has been increasing controversy over the ethics of such a service.
The public has become worried about the potential abuse of personal genetic information in the form of discrimination, she said.
But Wojcicki remains optimistic about the field of genetics.
“Genetics is not about death and dying and all these horrible things,” she said. “We have this long tail of diversity in genetics and the goal is to celebrate our diversity.”
One attendee of the event, David Hafler, the chief and chair of neurology at Yale-New Haven Hospital and Yale School of Medicine, said after the talk that he thinks 23andMe is part of a future trend in which people are driven by their “ultimate curiosity” to find out more about themselves, even at the molecular level.
Thomas McCabe ’12 said that the health care industry need to offer more direct-to-consumer services like 23andMe and that he signed up for the service prior to the talk to find “something interesting” about himself.
It costs customers $429 to be tested for disease risk, drug responses, traits and their carrier status for various diseases.