California-based personal genetics company 23andMe is selling its customers' data to biotech company Genentech, which in turn will use these to develop a drug for Parkinson's disease, a condition with no available cure and affects about 1 million individuals in the United States.
23andMe sells cheap spit kits to individuals who want their genes read without a doctor's order and at a cheaper price. The company also used to give their customers information on whether or not their genes indicate risks for certain conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told the company to stop marketing its DNA test because it should still be cleared with the agency.
The chastisement has hurt 23andMe's sales but it appears that it opened new doors of lucrative business opportunities for the company. On Jan. 6, 23andMe announced its biggest deal so far: an agreement with biotech company Genentech.
The collaboration would have 23andMe generate genome sequencing data for about 3,000 of its customers for Genentech, which the latter will use to identify new therapeutic treatments for individuals with Parkinson's disease.
"23andMe helps individuals with debilitating disease participate in research and make advances happen faster," said Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe CEO. "I am thrilled about this partnership and believe this can help accelerate meaningful discoveries for Parkinson's patients."
Sources close to the deal said that Genentech, the U.S. arm of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, will pay as much as $60 million for it to access the data of about 3,000 patients with Parkinson's disease in 23andMe's database. 23andMe is reportedly receiving an upfront payment of $10 million, with the company set to earn as much as $50 million in further milestones.
Interestingly, 23andMe's newly announced agreement with Genentech is only the first of 10 deals the company has struck with large drug and biotech companies. Such deals will utilize the database that was created by 23andMe's customers who bought its DNA test kits and donated their health and genetic data for research.
Since 2006, 23andMe has amassed data from 800,000 customers, about 600,000 of whom have agreed that their genetic data will be used for research purposes. The deal, however, also appears to prove what journalist Charles Seife has long suspected to be the true intentions of 23andMe.
"The Personal Genome Service isn't primarily intended to be a medical device," Seife wrote in the Scientific American in November 2013. "It is a mechanism meant to be a front end for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public."