Tue, Mar 17, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Turning DNA data into drugs

23andMe, the company that popularized saliva-based personal genetic testing, will expand from screening people for disease to inventing new medicines to cure them

By Caroline Chen  /  Bloomberg

Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and chief executive officer of 23andMe, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in San Francisco, California, last October.

Photo: Bloomberg

23andMe, the Google-backed genetic-testing startup that popularized a US$99 DNA spit test, will expand from screening people for diseases to inventing new medicine to cure them.

The Silicon Valley company has recruited a top biotechnology executive to help. Richard Scheller spent almost 15 years at Genentech, heading research and early development at the company that invented pioneering cancer drugs Herceptin and Avastin. He’ll lead 23andMe’s new therapeutics group.

It’s the latest evolution for 23andMe, which went from a seller of novelty ancestry kits to one of the world’s biggest repositories of genetic data, doing business with major pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Genentech.

Now it may compete with those giants.

“Part of what we’re trying to do here is drug discovery in a more efficient model,” Chief Executive Officer Anne Wojcicki said in a telephone interview. “Pharma companies don’t have a direct relationship with consumers, so they’re always subjects. By engaging them and giving it to them as a prize, saying, ‘You’ve powered this study and you’ve made this happen,’ we can do things in a different way.”

23andMe, named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in human cells, is recovering after a US Food and Drug Administration ruling in late 2013 left the company unable to sell health analyses from its saliva tests, hurting sales. Since then the closely held company has worked hard to get back in the agency’s good graces, and last month gained approval for its first screening kit, which focuses on Bloom Syndrome.

“We obviously like to stay busy, we were worried after the FDA approval we’d get bored,” Wojcicki said, making light of the company’s huge ambitions.

GROW FASTER

“With an FDA-cleared product, we need to continue to accelerate growth,” she said. If 23andMe could find the causes of disease in its DNA data, why not try and find the cures? “I want to push the limits.”

While it is unusual for a health data company to move into drug discovery and development, “obviously they have credibility in this area as a result of the partnerships they have with a number of pharma companies,” said Dan Bradbury, founder of BioBrit LLC, a life sciences consulting and investment firm in La Jolla, California. “I think they will be taken seriously but it will take a number of years to establish the capability” to develop drugs, he said.

POTENTIAL COMPETITION

23andMe may run into conflicts and overlap with the drug company customers to whom it sells data. One of the last things Scheller signed off on before retiring from Genentech in December was a deal with 23andMe to help find new drug targets for Parkinson’s disease. Genentech, which is part of Roche Holding AG, was also an early investor in 23andMe.

President Andy Page said 23andMe’s pharmaceutical partnerships will be unaffected, even amid potential competition.

“The idea of multiple entities accessing the database concurrently is something we’re comfortable with,” Page said. 23andMe has also told its drug and biotech partners that they may be able to license some compounds in the future.

PICKING TARGETS

23andMe hasn’t yet picked any disease areas or specific drug targets, and is still deciding whether to seek out big pharma partners to help run clinical trials or go on its own.

When Scheller’s retirement from Genentech was announced, “I knew that I wasn’t going to stay retired very long,” he said in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t exactly sure about what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to get into human genetics.”

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