NEA Blog

Something to Salivate Over

  • December 11, 2012

About five years ago, I was paid the most arresting visit. A first-time entrepreneur named Anne Wojcicki came to NEA with an amazing idea, on a single sheet of paper: she wanted to make gene sequencing technology accessible to regular consumers for the first time ever, enabling all of us to learn amazing things about ourselves; to potentially live healthier, longer lives; and to completely revolutionize medical research.

And all she needed was a little spit.

Today the personal genomics company Anne founded — 23andMe, named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up each person’s genome—is reducing its price to $99, a full order of magnitude from its first price point ($999) in 2007. The company is doing this to genotype one million individuals, and this ambitious goal is being fueled by over $50m in new capital led by DST’s Yuri Milner, along with NEA and existing investors Google and MPM Capital.

What does this mean?  First of all, if you haven’t already done it, go to www.23andme.com and order a kit. You’ll receive a cool little package that looks like this:

You’ll spit into a plastic vial, drop it in the mail, and begin exploring one of the most fascinating subjects on earth:  yourself. (If that sounds a bit self-centered, wait until I get to the part about how your journey of self-discovery could help cure illnesses and save lives.)  You will explore your ancestry—who knows what amazing historic journeys are contained in your DNA?  You will discover some fun genetic traits about yourself (my favorites: alcohol flush reaction aka “Asian blush”; height; male pattern baldness; and longevity). And you will discover and explore your genetic propensities to develop all sorts of conditions from breast cancer to asthma to bipolar disorder.

This is all made possible by the amazing team of geneticists, data scientists, illustrators, and writers at 23andMe who help us make sense of our mind-boggling genetic codes—and by a precipitous drop in the cost of sequencing base pairs, which is plummeting much faster than the price of semiconductors ever declined:

But that’s just the beginning. All this genetic information in aggregate, amplified by the astonishing volume of additional data volunteered by customers, can accelerate our understanding of the human genome at a rate even 23andMe didn’t anticipate. Customers have now answered more than 75 million questions about themselves: everything from allergies to ancestry to exercise to optimism. Against this self-reported data, the company has replicated over 180 genome-wide association studies (GWAS) at essentially zero cost and zero time.

GWAS are the studies you read about in the news or in academic journals all the time, heralding the discovery of the gene associated with a particular trait. In traditional modes of research, these studies tend to be expensive and time-consuming. One study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found several genes related to asthma; this study cost $15m and took four years. 23andMe uncovered the same results, instantly and at virtually no cost, with a database query. When genetic research can be done at semiconductor speed, the possibilities are staggering.

The company has already begun to make novel discoveries from its database (like the first concrete genetic link between breast size and breast cancer risks). And with a million genotypes under its belt, 23andMe will be in an unparalleled position to advance health and well-being in previously unimaginable ways for individuals, families, and whole nations.

We’re in spitting distance of something great.

Patrick Chung is on Twitter @patrickchung

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