Genetic analysis company 23andMe today announced a bold initiative to gather DNA samples from at least 10,000 people as part of a massive effort to identify genes that may be at the root of Parkinson’s disease. The effort combines the recent availability of cheap, fast genetic analysis tools (such as those offered by 23andMe) with the power of the internet to connect people and information. An online community will be created where DNA donors, Parkinson’s sufferers, researchers, and pretty much the entire world can centralize their efforts to conquer the disease.
With backing from Google founder Sergey Brin (recently diagnosed with a genetic predisposition to the disease), Actor and Parkinson’s sufferer Michael J. Fox, and the Parkinson’s Institute, the project has serious credibility and backing. In order to rally the masses to participate in its Parkinson’s effort, 23andMe will be offering its services, normally $399, for a reduced price of only $25 to members of families with a Parkinson’s history.
For more than a year now 23andMe has been offering analysis of DNA to individuals. It works like this: 23andMe sends you a kit that allows you to take a swab of saliva from your cheek and mail back to them. A few weeks later, 23andMe will have analyzed more than 550,000 portions of your DNA, called SNP’s, and the results of this analysis are published to a website where you can view the results. The analysis can provide information about your predisposition to more than 100 diseases, offer concrete information about your ancestry, and explain the genetic basis for many traits such as eye color. I have personally tried out the service from both 23andMe, as well as competitor DecodeMe.
23andMe has highlighted its Parkinson’s effort as an example of a new era of research that it calls Research 2.0. Cheesy name perhaps, but the idea is one that we have long been advocating here at the hub. With the rise of cheap, fast genetic analysis, superfast computers and software for data analysis, and an ever expanding array of internet tools for collaboration and communication, a new era of understanding and fighting disease is upon us.
We can expect the Parkinson’s initiative from 23andMe to serve as a model for efforts to fight several other diseases over the next decade. Although the old model of fighting disease through a series of individual, private efforts existing autonomously in research labs, corporations, and foundations across the world is still valid in many cases, the effort from 23andMe represents the rise of a powerful new paradigm of open, collaborative disease fighting. Today’s internet allows for a new type of partnership between interested individuals, sufferers, corporations, research facilities, and governments, empowered by a centralized community for information sharing and collaboration.
Although the Parkinson’s intiative announced today is an exciting development, we must keep in mind that diseases such as Parkinson’s are extremely complex, likely arising from several genetic as well as non-genetic influences. The quest to cure and prevent these terrible diseases will not be easy and will not come overnight. Yet with ever increasing advances in knoweldge and technology, victory is increasingly within our sight.