23andMe Leading Way to Democratized Disease Research

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Here’s a riddle: What do you get when you mix American Idol with genetic testing for disease? The 23andMe research revolution. The same company that brought you affordable testing for common genetic markers has begun a new initiative to lend insight into genetic causes for common illnesses. Starting this summer, 23andMe members can vote for which diseases they think should be researched, and submit their genetic information as patients for the studies. Co-founders Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki want you to join, vote, and send in your spit to help find cures. Watch their video after the break.

23andMe is a personal genetics firm that allows individuals to test their genome for key genetic markers. These markers take the form of SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’), single nucleotide polymorphisms. A standard test that grants you access to information about ancestry, health, and traits costs you about $399. A research version is available for just $99. Basically all you do for either option is spit in a special tube and then mail it to the company.

The 23andMe research revolution is pretty straight forward. The company needs volunteers and sponsors to help in genetic testing for 10 diseases: migraines, psoriasis, severe food allergies, arthritis, celiac, lymphoma/leukemia, multiple sclerosis, ALS, epilepsy, and testicular cancer. Sponsors get to vote on which disease will be prioritized. Besides sending in some spit, volunteers will also be entering a lot of health information online in order to find correlations between genes and diseases. There’s no guarantees that the genetic testing and correlations will lead to any worthwhile data, but you have to admire 23andMe for getting out there and shaking things up.

The research revolution isn’t 23andMe’s first foray into a democratic approach to genetic testing for diseases. As we mentioned a few months ago, they sought out 10,000 volunteers for a Parkinson’s study. While there may be some statistical problems with the way that 23andMe solicits volunteers (everyone has to have at least $99, right?) the activism portion of their approach is laudable. With this new push for research, there’s a good chance that some insight will be made into at least one of the ten diseases mentioned.

In the future, other diseases will be added to the list, and past data will be leveraged into the new tests. That’s a lot of bang for your genetic buck. Just to show you how easy the submission process is, here’s a video from health advocate and strategist Jen S. McCabe:

You know, I don’t want to turn this post into a wholesale endorsement for 23andMe and their research revolution, but I’m definitely in favor of it. The idea of democratizing research while still keeping it meaningful is tremendously motivating. 23andMe is setting the basis for future debates on genetics just by affirming an individual’s rights to know more about their own genetic code. As we’ve said in previous stories, the company sits at the crossroads of genetic testing and internet community building that will be a powerful meme going forward. Even if this particular research revolution doesn’t yield results, one eventually will.