Since the launch of its DNA testing service in 2007, genomics giant 23andMe has convinced more than 5 million people to fill a plastic tube with half a teaspoon of saliva. In return for all that spit (and some cash too), customers get insights into their biological inheritance, from the superficial—do you have dry earwax or wet?—to mutations associated with disease. What 23andMe gets is an ever-expanding supply of valuable behavioral, health, and genetic information from the 80 percent of its customers who consent to having their data used for research.
So last week’s announcement that one of the world’s biggest drugmakers, GlaxoSmithKline, is gaining exclusive rights to mine 23andMe’s customer data for drug targets should come as no surprise. (Neither should GSK’s $300 million investment in the company). 23andMe has been sharing insights gleaned from consented customer data with GSK and at least six other pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms for the past three and a half years. And offering access to customer information in the service of science has been 23andMe’s business plan all along, as WIRED noted when it first began covering the company more than a decade ago.
But some customers were still surprised and angry, unaware of what they had already signed (and spat) away. GSK will receive the same kind of data pharma partners have generally received—summary level statistics that 23andMe scientists gather from analyses on de-identified, aggregate customer information—though it will have four years of exclusive rights to run analyses to discover new drug targets. Supporting this kind of translational work is why some customers signed up in the first place. But it’s clear the days of blind trust in the optimistic altruism of technology companies are coming to a close.
“I think we’re just operating now in a much more untrusting environment,” says Megan Allyse, a health policy researcher at the Mayo Clinic who studies emerging genetic technologies. “It’s no longer enough for companies to promise to make people healthy through the power of big data.” Between the fall of blood-testing unicorn Theranos and Facebook’s role in the 2016 election attacks, “I think everything from here on out will be subject to much higher levels of public scrutiny,” Allyse says.
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