Genetics firm plans research unit to find disease cures

Image source, Science Photo Library
Image caption, The personal DNA test detects a range of gene variants

Personal genetics firm 23andMe is planning to use its database of health information to research possible cures for a range of diseases.

Its new research group has appointed a head and will begin recruiting scientists next month.

They will use the genetic data to help identify new therapies for common and rare diseases.

Around 80% of 23andMe's 875,000 customers have agreed that it can use their health data for medical research.

It will eventually share its research with drug companies, although the details are yet to be worked out.

The company already has deals with 14 pharmaceutical companies, allowing them to trawl its database for specific health information.

It hopes that mutations and other genetic information in the database will reveal potential drug targets for a range of diseases. Healthy carriers of mutated genes may offer insights into why some people do not develop disease.

Dr Richard Scheller, former vice-president of research at biotechnology firm Genentech, will head up the new group.

He said: "I have dedicated my life to research aimed at fulfilling unmet needs for very sick people. I believe that human genetics has a very important role to play in finding new treatments for disease. I am excited about the potential for what may be possible through 23andMe's database. It is unlike any other."

FDA ban

23andme attracted half a million customers after it launched in 2007. Users could order its $99 test (which costs £125 in the UK) and send back a sample of saliva to receive a health report about what genetic conditions they may be predisposed to.

But the test proved controversial and, in November 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulator ordered the company to halt selling its kits for medical or diagnostic use, saying it had failed to comply with requests for more information about the service.

It meant that the explosive growth the service had seen slowed considerably.

The company was allowed to continue selling its kits for non-medical purposes, such as ancestry discovery, and the FDA recently approved a version of the test that can check whether a healthy person carries a rare genetic mutation for Bloom syndrome, a rare disorder.

It expects the regulator to approve other specific tests and hopes to have a new version of its original test available for sale in the US by the end of this year.

It recently launched in the UK but has not disclosed how many customers it has.

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