Installing an App on Your Genome: 23andMe Opens Up to Developers
Thousands of adventurous souls have signed up to have their DNA sequenced by companies like 23andMe, Navigenics, and Iceland’s deCODEme—businesses that appeal to the curiosity people have about their genetic make-up.
For even more adventurous types, there’s the option of uploading that entire genome scan to other Web outfits like SNPedia, a wiki for the study of genetic variations and their impact on health.
An ecosystem of online trade in consumer genetic information is forming, and 23andMe wants to help it along, said Mike Polcari, director of software engineering at the Google-backed genetic testing company in Mountain View, CA. So 23andMe is welcoming outside developers to create interactive apps for 23andMe customers, who will gain more choices about how much to share, and with whom, Polcari said.
At the Quantified Self conference at Stanford earlier this month, 23andMe announced it will grant developer keys opening up the company’s application programming interface (API) to third party organizations that pass a company application process and agree to 23andMe’s terms, such as privacy protections. Using an analogy to smartphones, Polcari said the new interactive products can be like “installing an app on your genome.”
The payoff of the new apps for 23andMe customers could be something as whimsical as a painting generated by their DNA patterns, or as sober as information about possible genetic disease risks, Polcari said. Customers will be able to share as little as a single gene variation—often called SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms—or their entire genome scans, along with background on their health histories, he said.
“The developer can’t access anything unless the customer authorizes it,” Polcari said. Customers who are only interested in Parkinson’s disease, for example, could decide to share only their gene variants for a single gene heavily suspected of a role in that disease, he said. That could be useful to customers of companies such as PatientsLikeMe of Cambridge, MA, which invites individuals to join online communities concerned about specific illnesses.
The initial API keys will be free, but the company plans to start charging for developers for access at some point. Polcari said he sees new revenues for 23andMe as less important than first turning the company into a trusted intermediary between individuals and the ecosystem of researchers and companies that are interested in their genetic information.
23andMe itself already has interactive features that mine customer DNA patterns, as well as customer surveys, to find possible genetic patterns. These can range from joint problems that may be correlated with Parkinson’s disease, to the genes that could predispose people to have dimples, back hair, or a “unibrow” like those sported by the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev or the painter Frida Kahlo.
Polcari said 23andMe’s plan to open access for other app developers has received an enthusiastic response, but he said he didn’t have permission to name interested developers yet. One possible app he raised as an example would allow people to track their sleep patterns, and allow researchers to try correlating them with genes and circadian rhythms, he said.
But Polcari acknowledged that genetic information contributed by only a fraction of 23andMe’s customers—who number more than 150,000—would not form the basis of reliable conclusions about genetic patterns in such a sleep study. Statistically significant data from controlled “genome-wide association studies” require large numbers of participants, he said.
Such studies are carried out by organizations such as the Kaiser Permanente Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health, where participants and their genetic information are protected by regulations governing experimentation on human subjects.
Marcy Darnovsky, Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, said customers of genetic testing services should carefully research the aims of outside parties seeking their DNA sequences, and the benefits they will get in return. An individual’s decision could affect family members as well, because they share the same genes. Federal law provides some protection against discrimination on the basis of genetic traits, she said, but the laws still have gaps.
23andMe will cancel access to its site for any app developer that violates its terms, such as lending out its developer key or passing along customers’ genetic information to other organizations. But Polcari said that customers should exercise their own judgment when they decide who can share their data, because 23andMe may have little power to force third parties to comply with its terms.
The business plan at the Mountain View company, which charges customers $299 for their genetic scans, has been evolving as consumer genome testing has proved to be a modest source of revenue for the small sector. 23andMe has been building the size of its customer database and focusing on its value for research.
In July, 23andMe announced its purchase of CureTogether, a company that invites people to share their symptoms and their experiences with various treatments. The combination of CureTogether’s customer information, paired with 23andMe’s genetic data, supports “patient-driven” research and connects communities of individuals based on an understanding of DNA, said 23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
PatientsLikeMe, which also creates online communities, names 23andMe as a partner, and also collaborates on studies with academic scientists and drug companies including Merck and Biogen Idec.