23andMe will harness genetic research in new drug discovery unit

Andy Page, president, 23andMe
Andy Page, president, 23andMe

23andMe will expand out of the living room and into the laboratory by tapping into the genetic data it's collected over the years to develop new medicines.

Last Thursday the consumer-facing genetics firm announced it had created a new therapeutics group—headed by Richard Scheller, formerly EVP of research and early development for Genentech—to mine and utilize the largest consented-to and re-contactable database in the world for novel drug targets.

Andy Page, president of 23andMe, said people want to be a part of the discovery process, and that speaks to the high levels of participation they're seeing. “People want to assist in the research and believe that if their data can be incrementally helpful ... they want to be involved,” he said. “EBay was founded on the notion that people are good, and we believe in that [notion].”

23andMe announced two research partnerships with Pfizer and Genentech in 2014. Page said the decision to form an R&D unit was borne out of those collaborations.

“It became increasingly apparent that we had the ability to bring new drugs to market,” he recalls, “but also in ways that wouldn't significantly disrupt our existing partnerships. It was from those collaborations that we began to realize the significant value that our database can bring to the drug discovery process.”

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The sole value doesn't lie in the database alone, though, Page cautions. “We're OK with multiple researchers having concurrent access to the database, because it's not just the data that gets pulled from it that's important, but it's also the questions people ask and what they do with that information.”

The company said 80% of over 850,000 customers have allowed 23andMe to use their aggregated de-identified genetic data for research. With the advent of R&D platforms that can rein in massive amounts of data from spit kits (and now mobile phones), it was only a matter of time before these personal and real-world insights began to increasingly inform drug development.

Page said the company had been eyeing Scheller for the role since he left Genentech in December 2014. “We needed someone who appreciated the database, and also somebody of rich stature.”

Scheller is currently taking a broad look at the research with the expectation they'll find some “low-hanging fruit” drug targets within roughly nine months. Page noted that Scheller has excluded some therapeutic areas in a preliminary analysis but he declined to disclose that information at this time.

23andMe expects to add roughly 10 people this year for Scheller's team, Page said, with the company primarily looking to add additional analytics talent, like computational biologists. He noted that they also plan on adding another senior person, who will also be focused on “maximizing the process of analyzing data and prioritizing targets.”

The company announced in September it will move its headquarters further downtown in Mountain View, Calif. The company is also looking to acquire lab space in San Francisco's Bay Area.