With 23andMe, she wants to do with DNA what Google did for data—because, after all, DNA is data. Want to compare huge numbers of people with hereditary Parkinson’s disease against people who carry a gene for Parkinson’s but are healthy? Here’s a database of millions: All a researcher needs to do is create the algorithm. Want to look at genetic variances among people with very complex diseases, like diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, or coronary-artery disease? 23andMe can isolate disease groups and scrutinize the genotypes within them. Want to figure out why a tiny number of folks taking a certain multiple-sclerosis drug also get blood clots? Cull the patients from the database, email them a questionnaire, and compare answers. And then there are those connections algorithms might make between genes and health that humans hadn’t even thought to ask about. These results might efficiently steer scientists toward especially promising targets for research, and the resulting discoveries—drugs, surgical procedures, nutritional information, eyeglasses, sunscreen—might then be marketed back to individuals who 23andMe already knows are predisposed to osteoarthritis or hereditary blindness or melanoma. It’s a vision of seamless scientific research that is also a business—like, say, Google—tempting you with products the data engine has already discerned you need.
23andMe collects that genetic information from individuals with a sleight of hand so quintessentially American that Tom Sawyer might have dreamed it up: It sells it to them. The first human genome was sequenced in 2003, after more than a decade of work and at a cost to taxpayers of $2.7 billion. But, over the next decade, the price of a gene-squencing chip plummeted while its capacity exponentially increased, and that chip is now the magical head of a pin on which a whole medical revolution could turn. By last fall, 23andMe could deploy genotyping technology to produce a personalized genetic report on more than 200 health conditions within three weeks for just $99—no prescription necessary. Customers spit into a tube in the privacy of their own homes, send the saliva sample to a lab, then wait for results, which arrive by email. The report gives users detailed ancestry information, the probabilities of their getting dozens of complex diseases, and their responsiveness to 25 drug therapies. It tells customers whether they have the BRCA1 mutations, which are associated with dramatically higher incidence of breast cancer, and whether they carry the genetic variant that corresponds to cystic fibrosis. It also provides party fodder: Do you smell asparagus in your pee? Are you prone to be addicted to nicotine or wired to run the 100-meter dash? To access all this tantalizing information, users have to agree to allow 23andMe to profit from their genetic data. “By providing any sample,” the terms of service read, “you acquire no rights in any research or commercial products that may be developed by 23andMe or its collaborating partners.”