Linda Avey, one of the two founders of personal genomics company 23andMe, is leaving the startup to start a new foundation dedicated to studying Alzheimer’s disease. Avey, who has been with the company for over three years, writes that the new foundation will make use of 23andMe’s research platform to “drive the formation of the world’s largest community of individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s, empower them with their genetic information and track their brain health using state-of-the-art tools”.
Avey notes that the foundation will be starting with the connection between Alzheimer’s and ApoE4, which helps in the breakdown of peptide plaques associated with the disease. The decision seems to be driven in part by personal reasons, as Avey’s father-in-law suffered from Alzheimer’s.
Avey sent the following Email to the 23andMe team:
As I trust you all know, 23andMe is very special to me. I also recognize that the company has reached a critical point in its growth where new leadership can take it to the successful heights we all think it can achieve.
I’ve decided that I’d like to focus my efforts on an area that is personally significant and will continue to have a huge impact on our healthcare system–Alzheimer’s disease. Effective today, I’m leaving 23andMe and have begun making plans for the creation of a foundation dedicated to the study of this disorder. The foundation will leverage the research platform we’ve built at 23andMe–the goal is to drive the formation of the world’s largest community of individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s, empower them with their genetic information and track their brain health using state-of-the-art tools. We’ve always planned to include Alzheimer’s in our 23andWe research mission…I’m just approaching it from a new angle.
Some of you might be aware that my father-in-law suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away last year. For this reason, Randy and I are motivated to do what we can to improve the understanding of what leads to the debilitating symptoms and what might prevent them from starting in the first place. The ApoE4 association is barely understood but gives us a great starting point.
I’ll miss working with you but will be excited to hear about the progress I know you’ll be making!
All the best,
Anne Wojcicki, who founded the company with Avey and is also noted for being Sergey Brin’s wife, sent out the following letter.
As Linda has told you, she will be leaving 23andMe to focus her energy on transforming Alzheimer’s research and treatment, leveraging the 23andMe platform. While I am quite sad to see her leave I am excited and hopeful as she takes on this mission. As Linda’s co-founder and partner over the last three years, it has been clear that revolutionizing research has been a primary passion. Our drive to change health care has always had roots in our personal lives and we have tried to structure 23andMe so that any individual or organization could actively participate in research. Linda and I have talked about doing research in Alzheimer’s since the inception of the company and the need for the Alzheimer’s community to have a strong leader. With Linda’s involvement, I believe that the APOE4 community could be the first asymptomatic community to successfully develop preventative treatments. I hope that going forward we’ll both be able to shake up and transform the health care space, making health care and treatments better for all.
Linda’s departure is also a sign of 23andMe’s maturation. When we started the company, the personal genetics industry did not exist; now it is a thriving and competitive landscape. Our company has grown and we continue to be an innovative industry leader. While our success has been exceptional, it is also clear we have a lot of work ahead. We have created a significant and empowering tool, but we must find new and better ways to promote the value of knowing your DNA. In the weeks ahead, we will outline a strategy for the company that we believe will make genetics a routine part of health care and will lead us to making significant research discoveries.
Linda has been instrumental in making 23andMe what it is today and we thank her for her passion and dedication to the company. We have many exciting opportunities before us, and I look forward to working with all of you to make 23andMe a spectacular success.
Worth pointing out is Wojcicki’s statement that 23andMe needs to find “better ways to promote the value of knowing your DNA”. That may be tricky — while there are some traits that are well understood, this is a field that is still in its infancy and the relationships between our genes and most traits are murky. At some point personal genomics will play a key role in our health care system, but I’m not sure we’re there yet.