LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 23andMe, a Google-funded online company selling a $999 (488 pounds) DNA test, launched on Monday as a kind of genetics-based MySpace or Facebook that also has the more serious aim of allowing medicine someday to target Americans’ ills more precisely.
Users sign up for the DNA saliva test online and receive and return it by mail. Four to six weeks later, the results are online, allowing them to learn about their inherited traits, their ancestry and — likely with the help of a professional to look at the data — some of their personal disease risks.
The Web site, which takes its name from the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up each person’s genome, says it will display more than a half-million data points in users’ genomes in a form they can visualize and understand.
“Compare your genetic blueprint to your friends and family,” the site invites.
Down the line, when the company’s database is much larger, users will have the option to take part in scientific studies that could help researchers determine such things as who is in danger of having a life-threatening drug reaction or who may be more likely to benefit from a specific cancer treatment.
“The mission of 23andMe is to take the genetic revolution to a new level,” said 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey.
“There wasn’t an effective way for people to contribute,” said fellow founder Anne Wojcicki, who has a background in health-care investing and is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
The site does not now make interpretations about a user’s risk for developing such diseases as cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and others, although users could in some cases get help from genetic counsellors or other experts to make some basic assessments.
While technology has made it easier to find and share information, it has also made security and privacy issues critical.
The protection of genetic information is particularly important to many consumers, who fear that insurers or other groups may use genetic data to deny coverage to or discriminate against people predisposed for serious disease.
23andMe’s founders say the personal data in their system is secure and under the user’s control — protected by more than a dozen levels of authentication and encryption from the lab to the user.
The two women say aggregated genomic data will eventually be made available to people outside 23andMe for study — but never sold.
“The data will not leave 23andMe,” said Avey, who came to the project with sales and business development experience in the biopharmaceutical industry.
While the project’s end goal is to tackle dreaded diseases — it is in early stages on projects with Autism Speaks and the Parkinson’s Institute — Avey said one of the company’s primary aims is make the complex subject more appealing by giving individuals the low-down on their own genes.
For example, users could begin to understand why they dislike certain flavours or foods, or whether they share a maternal ancestor line with celebrities, such as “Margaritaville” crooner and 23andMe user Jimmy Buffett.
Besides Google, the company’s other early investors include biotechnology company Genentech Inc and venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.
Competitors to 23andMe include Iceland’s deCODE Genetics and Silicon Valley-based Navigenics, which is backed by $25 million funding from top-flight venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital and Mohr Davidow Ventures.
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Gary Hill