23andMe: how one company is using spit to change the way we see our health


In a few weeks I’ll be finding out about my ancestry and receiving a bunch of genetic data that could potentially be used to establish what medical conditions I am predisposed to. That’s all thanks to a kit from 23andMe, a company that boasts the largest collection of spit in the world being the largest independent, saliva-based DNA service that is pretty much akin to the FBI’s database (CODUS).

The premise is simple, get a pack, spit (a lot), pay $99 (plus shipping) and wait about a month. Then you are in the club that (currently) contains more than 750 000 members that are helping to not only find out more about themselves but help fight diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Recently 23andMe has shown its value in the connected and big data world finding not one but two genetic associations for Parkinson’s (from identification to publishing in under two years).

Speaking with 23andMe’s CEO (Anne Wojcicki) and Comms Director (Catherine Afarian) you get a sense of the overall 23andMe mission and mission the company faces with things like regulation. “[Owning your medical data] is one of the most important things – more important than money. But none of [us] have that data. And I’m passionate about you owning that information.” says Wojcicki.

23andMe Kit

As with all things personal, DNA is a tricky and controversial area – not least because the level of understanding about the science is poor. Security-wise (a common concern), your data is held in separate computers (ie. It is only personally identifiable when you log on to the 23andme.com site). Otherwise, the two data sets (your data and personal ID) never meet.

With Founders from all corners of Silicon Valley (Twitter, PayPal and other financial industries) and backers from several funding rounds include Google Ventures, Johnson & Johnson and more recently Pfizer, the future is anything but certain. 23andMe isn’t too big for a large company to swallow it up (which would bring fresh privacy and data concerns) but with US$126-million (and counting) nether is there a need to do such a thing.

So what’s the future of 23andMe? Increasingly, more and more genetic markers that apply to diseases are identified and then applied to the database so whilst an alert system is already sort of in place — a more proactive one mixed with health apps like Apple’s Health Book. Other areas could simply be a reminder system. As with all things of this nature, ultimately you are in or you are out. I’d like to see where we can go with this so I’m opting in, hoping I can contribute something back.



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