GlaxoSmithKline decides to invest $300 million in 23andMe

Race on to unlock value in genetic data


How much is your DNA worth? As millions of people pay for home tests to check on ancestry or health risks, genetic data is becoming an increasingly valuable resource for drugmakers, triggering a race to create a DNA marketplace.

GlaxoSmithKline’s decision to invest $300 million in 23andMe and forge an exclusive drug development deal with the Silicon Valley consumer genetics company crystallises the value locked up in genetic code.

The tie-up is the biggest yet involving home DNA testing, a market dominated by 23andMe and, which charge under $100 for a saliva-based test, but can also gain voluntary consent from customers for their data to be used by third parties.

However a number of new start-ups are beginning to offer people the chance to own their genetic information and sell it to data-hungry drug researchers.

Firms like EncrypGen, Nebula Genomics, LunaDNA and Zenome are using blockchain – the technology behind Bitcoin – to secure sensitive DNA records and create a transaction ledger. The new players all have slightly different models, with most simply provide data platforms, where people are rewarded for providing data, although Nebula also plans to offer testing.

The idea of using genetic factors to hunt for better drugs has been around for more than 20 years – but it is only now becoming possible to gather a large enough sample to spot the rare variants responsible for many diseases.

The number of people who have had their DNA analysed with the main testing companies has taken off since 2016 and now stands at around 17 million, according to entrepreneur and co-founder of science website David Mittelman.

By 2021, he thinks the figure could be north of 100 million.

For drugmakers like GSK, which announced its 23andMe deal last week, access to this data offers a way to accelerate drug development, since finding a drug target linked to a human genetic variant doubles the chance of producing a new medicine.

The interest in home DNA tests, which can reveal genetic variants that may influence the chances of developing diseases including Alzheimer’s, is part of a wider drive by drugmakers to tap into a range of anonymised patient data.

Roche, for example, has spent $4.3 billion this year buying out two specialists in cancer data, Foundation Medicine and Flatiron Health.

The trend has raised worries among campaigners about data security and privacy.

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