October 18, 2016
Free is a trigger word for a lot of consumers. When they hear the word “free,” they want it and they want it now. While this reaction is far from surprising, the amount of volunteers that signed up for free genetics testing offered by 23andMe still astounded coordinators.
Organizers at Renown Health and the Desert Research Institute, with help from 23andMe‘s genotyping services for research platform, expected the 5,000 open spots in the study to fill up within a few weeks. Instead, the slots were filled in one day after the program was launched — with 250 sign-ups occurring while Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval was announcing the program’s arrival.
The next day, organizers opened another 5,000 slots, which filled just as fast. Those who flocked to participate may have been driven by a desire to something good for their community. Or they may have been attracted by the genetics reports that they’ll get for free in exchange for their participation.
23andMe is 10-year-old company headquartered in Mountain View, Calif. that is best known for its direct-to-consumers genotyping reports. It sells a $99 report that identifies ancestry and a $199 report that provides over 65 data points on health as well as ancestry. While about 80 percent of the customers of 23andMe opt to allow researchers to use their genetic data, the project in the Reno area is driven primarily by medical researchers.
Renown Medical, the largest health-care organization in Northern Nevada and partner with 23andMe on this endeavor, has started collecting DNA samples from study participants. Participants view a video, sign some paperwork and spit in a test tube. Yes, it’s that simple
Renown Medical will tap into its deep data — including medical histories of more than 300,000 people — to provide details on the health of the region’s population. Then, researchers at Desert Research Institute, which is operated by the Nevada System of Higher Education, will look at the genetic data in combination with information on the health of the Reno-area population, and fine-tune it further with examination of social and environmental factors.
“This collaboration addresses one of the fundamental tensions in medicine: Which is more important, nature or nurture?” explained Anthony Slonim, M.D., Renown Health president and CEO, in an email.
Researchers hope to build predictive models that allow them to understand the way genetics, demographic variables (like income and age), and the environment interact, according to Joseph Grzymski, Ph.D., the Desert Research Institute researcher who spearheads the study.
The research, funded by the Renown Health Foundation and the Knowledge Fund of the State of Nevada, is one of the first its kind in the country. 23andMe’s investors include Yuri Milner, Johnson & Johnson Development Corp., MPM Capital, The Roche Venture Fund, Google Ventures and New Enterprise Associates, among others, with its latest round in 2015 pulling in $115 million.
Andy Page, the president of 23andMe, said that the company hopes that other states will follow suit with population-health studies that use 23andMe’s genotyping services.
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