23andMe Is Under Fire. Its Founder Remains ‘Optimistic’

You had an exclusive partnership with GlaxoSmithKline for five years, from 2018 to 2023. How successful was that?

It was overwhelmingly productive. Fifty drug targets came out of it, far more than we expected. They upped it again for one more year, the sixth year, though it’s non-exclusive now. We now have the ability to mine the dataset for ourselves, as well as to partner with other groups. Both the 23andMe and the GSK team felt like there was so much in there, any one group can’t possibly mine everything. It’s a real resource that we could apply to a number of different organizations for their own drug discovery.

Are there particular disease areas that you are really interested in?

We’ve narrowed our own discovery efforts into inflammation immunology, and particularly on asthma. We are also focused on our immuno-oncology programs, but that’s more on the [drug] development side.

Speaking of, you have a drug in a Phase 2 trial, an antibody for solid tumor cancers, and you just announced that you’re starting a Phase 1 trial for a second drug, known as a natural killer cell activator, also for cancer. Did you identify those drugs based on your genetic data?

We did. It’s really exciting seeing genetic data transform into a hypothesis that goes into a drug and actually seeing the impact on patients.

Do you think most 23andMe customers are aware that if they opt in to participating in research they’re also opting in to their data being used by potential pharma partners?

It’s not individual level data, unless they explicitly consented for individual level data. I think that most people want to see improvements in their lives. 23andMe can take it so far. But then we’re going to need to partner with others to really accelerate in a number of different disease areas.

How early on in the company’s history did you start thinking about drug development as a direction that 23andMe might go in?

Drug discovery was always really interesting to me. I just love the space. I think it’s incredibly interesting to be able to understand genetics and then have that apply and help understand and elucidate biology. The original iterations were about us not doing as much ourselves but rather that we would partner it with other pharma companies.

It has been a little more than 20 years now since the Human Genome Project was completed, yet the integration of genetics and genomics into medical care has not been fully realized. Why is that?

The biggest question around genetics is about the cost. In the US health care system, because the employers are paying for most health care and the average time that employees are at a job is three years, then you kind of look at: What’s your three-year investment time horizon, and will it pay off in that timeframe? So, I think it’s a lot about, you know, when does preventative care pay off? I think one of the things that’s a little bit of a sad truth for individuals is that what’s necessarily best for the entire population is not necessarily what’s best for you.

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