(Recasts; adds details on privacy, research strategies;
By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES Nov 19 23andMe, a Google-funded
online company selling a $999 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 Inc (GOOG.O)
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 counselors or other experts to make
some basic assessments.
SECURITY AND PRIVACY CONCERNS
While technology has made it easier to find and share
information, it has also made security and privacy issues
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 two women say aggregated genomic data will eventually
be made available to people outside 23andMe for study -- but
"The data will not leave 23andMe," said Avey, who came to
the project with sales and business development experience in
the biopharmaceutical industry.
FUN WITH DNA?
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 lowdown on their own genes.
For example, users could begin to understand why they
dislike certain flavors 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 DNA.N 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
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Gary Hill)