Genetic Testing Companies Are Partnering With Drug Companies to Develop New Medicines

Last year, the consumer genetic testing company 23andMe joined forces with drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to detect potential drug targets. Now, that relationship has yielded six new targets.

While 23andMe has provided millions of customers with information about their ancestry and predisposition to developing certain diseases, using genetic data for drug research was always part of the company’s plans, according to Emily Drabant Conley, PhD, 23andMe’s head of business development. The company has analyzed more than 8 million individuals’ DNA, allowing it to build the largest database of human DNA in the world.

Combined with the information collected from users’ health questionnaires, researchers will be able to compare customer self-reported data in conjunction with genetic data to better understand the interaction between genetics and different medical conditions.

GSK, 23andMe’s partner in this venture, estimates that developing drugs based on genetic information could double the chance of success in clinical trials, though the assumptions supporting this estimate are of unclear validity.

One of the six potential targets identified through the collaboration is a gene called PARK8, which encodes the kinase LRRK2.  A rare mutation in this gene first described in 2004 increases one’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and is present in about 2% of North Americans with Parkinson’s. The rarity of the mutation makes trial recruitment difficult, but 23andMe could help address this issue, as it has contact information for 7,500 carriers.

Despite the benefits of using genetic data in drug development, some urge caution: “Consumers really need to think about what they’re getting into,” said Richard Forno, PhD, assistant director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Where’s that data going, and who’s getting it?”

Source: The Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2019.

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