23andMe isn’t making too many headlines in tech circles any more, but there’s little doubt in my mind that it, or at least companies like it, will become incredibly important over the next decade or so. Affordable genetic testing will likely revolutionize the way we treat health care, and its effects on society will be profound. And well known celebrities like Sergey Brin (who happens to be married to 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki), are already beginning to publicly demonstrate some of the benefits of learning your genetic forecast.
Still, it’s hard to really call 23andMe “affordable” for most people at this point. The price has come down drastically from the $1000 Michael paid when he tried it out in late 2007 (it’s now only $399), but that’s still pretty steep for testing that most people probably have a hard time wrapping their heads around in the first place.
Today 23andMe has announced that it’s launching a much cheaper $99 version of its product as part of a new Research Revolution, which is meant to help 23andMe initiate research studies on genetic diseases that would otherwise require major logistical hurdles and funding. The effort is part of the company’s 23andWe research arm, which has the goal of building grassroots studies from communities of members who are afflicted by various genetic diseases.
Here’s how it works: 23andMe has picked out ten different diseases that it’s looking to study first (the company plans to study more down the line — this is just a starter set). Users visit the site and “pledge” to one disease. The first disease to reach 1000 votes will be the first one studied by 23andMe researchers, though all ten will eventually be studied. Participants agree to complete a number of surveys, and users who have previously submitted their DNA to the service can opt-in and submit votes as well. Voting will run through September 2009.
Unfortunately, the cheaper price comes with some downsides: you’ll miss out on a lot of the analysis that makes 23andMe really cool, like the ability to see your ancestry data, some of the site’s community features, and the ability to download your raw genetic data (which you could theoretically have analyzed again at some point in the future). What you’re left with are the site’s research reports, a list of risks for 100 diseases, and “traits”, along with some basic sharing and community functionality. You can see a full list of differences here.
Finally, it’s not clear if this is going to work at all. This is a new approach to genetic research, and some science blogs believe that a 1,000 person sample size may not be enough to generate adequate data. Still, provided that 23andMe ensures that all patients are given adequate informed consent and the resulting data is considered valid by the scientific community, this could prove to be an efficient new way to conduct scientific research.