23andMe Is Using Customers’ Genetic Data to Develop Drugs. Is This Brilliant or Dubious?

A woman does a DNA test with a cotton swab at home.

(© Nataliya/Adobe)


Leading direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies are continuously unveiling novel ways to leverage their vast stores of genetic data.

"23andMe will tell you what diseases you have and then sell you the drugs to treat them."

As reported last week, 23andMe's latest concept is to develop and license new drugs using the data of consumers who have opted in to let their information be used for research. To date, over 10 million people have used the service and around 80 percent have opted in, making its database one of the largest in the world.

Culture researcher Dr. Julia Creet is one of the foremost experts on the DTC genetic testing industry, and in her forthcoming book, The Genealogical Sublime, she bluntly examines whether such companies' motives and interests are in sync with those of consumers.

Leapsmag caught up with Creet about the latest news and the wider industry's implications for health and privacy.

23andMe has just announced that it plans to license a newly developed anti-inflammatory drug, the first one created using its customers' genetic data, to Almirall, a pharma company in Spain. What's your take?

I think this development is the next step in the evolution of the company and its "double-sided" marketing model. In the past, as it enticed customers to give it their DNA, it sold the results and the medical information divulged by customers to other drug companies. Now it is positioning itself to reap the profits of a new model by developing treatments itself.

Given that there are many anti-inflammatory drugs on the market already, whatever Almirall produces might not have much of an impact. We might see this canny move as a "proof of concept," that 23andMe has learned how to "leverage" its genetic data without having to sell them to a third party. In a way, the privacy provisions will be much less complicated, and the company stands to attract investment as it turns itself into [a pseudo pharmaceutical company], a "pharma-psuedocal" company.

Emily Drabant Conley, the president of business development, has said that 23andMe is pursuing other drug compounds and may conduct their own clinical trials rather than licensing them out to their existing research partners. The end goal, it seems, is to make direct-to-consumer DNA testing to drug production and sales back to that same consumer base a seamless and lucrative circle. You have to admit it's a brilliant business model. 23andMe will tell you what diseases you have and then sell you the drugs to treat them.

In your new book, you describe how DTC genetic testing companies have capitalized on our innate human desire to connect with or ancestors and each other. I quote you: "This industry has taken that potent, spiritual, all-too-human need to belong... and monetized it in a particularly exploitative way." But others argue that DTC genetic testing companies are merely providing a service in exchange for fair-market compensation. So where does exploitation come into the picture?

Yes, the industry provides a fee for service, but that's only part of the story. The rest of the story reveals a pernicious industry that hides its business model behind the larger science project of health and heredity. All of the major testing companies play on the idea of "lack," that we can't know who we are unless we buy information about ourselves. When you really think about it, "Who do you think you are?" is a pernicious question that suggests that we don't or can't know who we or to whom we are related without advanced data searches and testing. This existential question used to be a philosophical question; now the answers are provided by databases that acquire more valuable information than they provide in the exchange.

"It's a brilliant business model that exploits consumer naiveté."

As you've said before, consumers are actually paying to be the product because the companies are likely to profit more from selling their genetic data. Could you elaborate?

The largest databases, AncestryDNA and 23andMe, have signed lucrative agreements with biotech companies that pay them for the de-identified data of their customers. What's so valuable is the DNA combined with the family relationships. Consumers provide the family relationships and the companies link and extrapolate the results to larger and larger family trees. Combined with the genetic markers for certain diseases, or increased susceptibility to certain diseases, these databases are very valuable for biotech research.

None of that value will ever be returned to consumers except in the form of for-profit drugs. Ancestry, in particular, has removed all information about its "research partners" from its website, making it very difficult to see how it is profiting from its third-party sales. 23andMe is more open about its "two-sided business model," but encourages consumers to donate their information to science. It's a brilliant business model that exploits consumer naiveté.

A WIRED journalist wrote that "23andMe has been sharing insights gleaned from consented customer data with GSK and at least six other pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms for the past three and a half years." Is this a consumer privacy risk?

I don't see that 23andMe did anything to which consumers didn't consent, albeit through arguably unreadable terms and conditions. The part that worries me more is the 300 phenotype data points that the company has collected on its consumers through longitudinal surveys designed, as Anne Wojcicki, CEO and Co-founder of 23andMe, put it, "to circumvent medical records and just self-report."

Everyone is focused on the DNA, but it's the combination of genetic samples, genealogical information and health records that is the most potent dataset, and 23andMe has figured out a way to extract all three from consumers.

Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup
Rachele Hendricks-Sturrup is a Doctor of Health Science, author, and scholar on ethical, legal, and social issues around the use and processing of consumer-generated health and genetics data.
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