It’s easy to be cynical about 23andMe’s motives in launching this initiative - this is, after all, a profit-making exercise rather than a research charity - but I suspect that many academics will be watching 23andMe’s progress in this venture with considerable interest. Modern genomics studies require mind-bogglingly large numbers of samples to achieve the power required to find subtle genetic associations, and recruiting those numbers of patients is far from easy. If 23andMe’s model proves successful in recruiting and maintaining large communities of patients, I suspect large academic consortia will at least begin to consider the possibility of pursuing similar approaches.
That actually puts 23andMe in a potentially lucrative position. In order for academic consortia to pursue the 23andMe model, they need to be in a position to return comprehensive results from genome scans to their patients and controls. However, providing such complex information to a lay audience is extremely difficult, and probably beyond the means of most academic groups. That means (as I noted back in March) there’s a potentially massive possible market for 23andMe here in providing a mediation service for returning research data to patients, and for providing the resources required to keep participants engaged actively in the research community.
Ever since 23andMe began shouting from the rooftops that it wanted to do research, there has been more than a little suspicion about what the company was “really” up to. I think Daniel is absolutely right: in the simplest terms, the company believes that there is an unmet need in genetic research (subject ascertainment, data collection, return of results to subjects) that it can begin to help satisfy and in doing so it will generate revenue. Some might argue that there are already perfectly fine mechanisms for informed consent and human subjects research in genetics. GWAS are great! The status quo rocks!
Others, ahem, have a different view.