Why 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki Trusts the Crowd Over the System

by jeeg 19. April 2012 22:03

Last night, co-founder and CEO of personal-genetics company 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, came to Harvard, preaching the virtues of crowd-sourced science and DNA sequencing. Many in the audience were already converts.

Before diving in, Wojcicki asked for a show of hands of how many in the crowd already had their DNA sequenced. A wave of hands shot up. “My kind of audience,” she said.

Earlier this month, the company published the results of its latest foray into crowd-sourced science: a study in the journal PloS One examining over 3,700 people with hypothyroidism and over 35,500 controls — all from the company’s database of customers who have agreed to participate in research. The researchers found five genetic associations with the condition, offering potential new avenues for research and therapies.

In her talk, part of the Program on Science, Technology & Society at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Wojcicki got more personal about why “I don’t want to bet (my health) on the people or system that is currently in place today. I want to learn from the crowd.”

Hoping to help a friend with a family history of pancreatic cancer, Wojcicki asked 23andMe researchers to send out a cancer family history survey to people in the database with gene mutations known to be associated with cancer. She wanted to know if they or anyone in their families had cancer, and to combine the answers with their genetic data. The researchers will then determine if there are any genetic associations that eventually might lead to potential new therapies.

She got over 12,000 responses in 36 hours and the data is still being analyzed. “Being able to do research in a real-time way is the way research needs to be done in the future,’’ she told the crowd.

Not everyone agreed that crowd-sourced science is the best way to go.

One audience member questioned whether learning about gene associations with disease — when it’s far from certain someone will actually get the illness — might lead to unnecessary, expensive, and sometimes harmful medical testing.

Wojcicki responded by saying gene testing can result in cost savings, with people taking better care of themselves and preventing health problems.

Later, she told Health Blog that she recognizes that not every scientific question can be answered by crowd sourcing, but that in areas like prevention, or with issues that drug companies or researchers t aren’t tackling, such as some rare diseases, these kinds of studies can quickly generate new information.

When it comes to relying on the medical establishment to come up with answers to things, she says, “We’ve hit the limit.”

Amy Dockser Marcus, Wall St. Journal




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