Home' Technology Review : November December 2008 Contents Q&A
Acustomer of the Web-based ser-
vice 23andMe sends in a sample
of spit and, for about the cost of
a Sony PlayStation 3, receives a genome-
wide analysis of nearly 600,000 genetic
variations. The results include an esti-
mate of genetic risk for various diseases,
along with other personal information,
such as where the customer's ancient
ancestors might have come from.
The service's $399 price tag and its
analysis of some quirky genetic traits,
such as type of earwax, epitomize Linda
Avey and Anne Wojcicki's populist
approach to the genome. Avey, whose
expertise is in business development
for the biotechnology industry, and
Wojcicki, who has a background in
health-care investing, have also given
the service a twist by harnessing the
popularity of social networking; clients
can compare their genomes with those
of friends and family. TR senior edi-
tor Emily Singer recently visited Avey
and Wojcicki at their o ces in Moun-
tain View, CA, to find out what it's like to
delve into one's own genome.
What does it mean to share your genome?
Avey: We have two levels of sharing. At
the basic level, you don't view specific
genetic information, but you can com-
pare yourself across your entire genetic
data set. You could look to see if you are
part of the same haplogroup [a designa-
tion of ancient ancestry] as a friend.
With extended sharing, you open up
part of your genome information to
others. You might do that with siblings
or close friends. For example, we have
a feature called family inheritance. If
you have data on three generations of
a family and plug in all three, you can
see how a particular set of genes, like
the genes for circadian rhythm, were
passed down. If you compare genomes
with a sibling, you can see if you received
the same chunk of chromosomes from
both parents. Siblings look like identical
twins at some parts of the genome.
What will be one of the first examples of
genetic information someone might use
to make a medical decision?
Wojcicki: One of the areas we've talked
a lot about is pharmacogenomics---being
able to say, should you take ibuprofen?
Or if you have a new baby and you're
flying to Europe, should that child take
Benadryl, or will it make them hyper?
What are the downsides of this kind of
Avey: You could find out the person
you thought was your father is not your
father. We point that out in the con-
sent form. On the health side, we don't
test for more serious conditions like
How do you respond to the criticism that
it is too early to offer this type of genetic
information directly to consumers?
Wojcicki: Part of the reason we started
this company is that we want to accel-
erate the pace of research. We want
personalized medicine to be a reality.
Instead of being reactive---you have this
disease and we're going to treat it---we
want to focus on prevention. Are you at
high risk for type 2 diabetes? Are there
things you can do to prevent that?
How would this product accelerate the
pace of genomic research?
Avey: We'll have the ability to collect
massive amounts of information from
customers. We've sent out a few surveys
now, and we've been pleased and excited
by the response.
What kind of surveys?
Avey: We're starting with broad ques-
tions that everyone can answer. "Are you
left- or right-handed?" "Are you a night
owl or an early bird?"
Wojcicki: I was surprised by the per-
centage of people that sneeze when they
see bright sunlight.
Is that genetically determined?
Wojcicki: We don't know. This is a
chance to find out. Because we already
have their genetic information in the
database, we can start to separate them
out into those who sneeze and those
who don't, and see if any genes start pop-
Avey: Future surveys will delve more
into specific disease areas, such as Par-
kinson's disease and gestational diabetes.
23andMe recently cut the price of its
service from nearly $1,000 to about $400.
Avey: The cost of genotyping tech-
nology is dropping---everything is
getting cheaper and faster. We are all
about democratizing genetics. The
more people we have enrolled, the more
quickly we can start making genetic
associations of our own.
What have you found most interesting in
your own genome?
Wojcicki: Ca eine metabolism is
really interesting. I love co ee.
Do you find that fast metabolizers like
Avey: I'm a slow metabolizer. I can
drink a cup of co ee and go straight to
bed, maybe because I just don't metabo-
Wojcicki: When I drink co ee, I'm
The founders of startup 23andMe want to know your genome.
Photograph by TOBY BURDITT
Watch Anne Wojcicki and Linda Avey
answer questions about 23andMe:
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