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Data-Driven Discovery Research at 23andMe

In the July 2010 issue of Wired, on newsstands now, Thomas Goetz details Google co-founder Sergey Brin's investments in Parkinson's disease research. Brin, whose wife Ann Wojcicki co-founded the DTC genetic testing firm 23andMe, is pouring money into a data-driven approach to find the causes of — and potential cures for — the neurodegenerative disease that affects his mother, and that he has learned he carries a genetic disposition for. "Brin is likely the first who, based on a genetic test, began funding scientific research in the hope of escaping a disease in the first place," Goetz reports. Goetz outlines 23andMe's ambitious Parkinson's Disease Genetics Initiative, in which the company plans to mine data from 10,000 individuals "who are willing to pour all sorts of personal information into a database," he writes. So far, Brin has contributed $4 million to the initiative, which has acquired nearly 4,000 participants. "Brin proposes a different approach, one driven by computational muscle and staggeringly large data sets," Goetz writes. "In other words, Brin is proposing to bypass centuries of scientific epistemology in favor of a more Googley kind of science. He wants to collect data first, then hypothesize, then find the patterns that lead to answers. And he has the money and the algorithms to do it."

Derek Lowe, blogger at In the Pipeline, tells Wired: "I don't have a problem with data. ... The problem is that the data is tremendously noisy stuff. We just don't know enough biology. If Brin's efforts will help us to understand that, I'm all for it. But I doubt they will."

Mike Hallett, chief of the Human Monitor Control Section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stoke, adds "the quality of [non-genetic] data [23andMe is collecting] is probably not as good as it could be, since it's provided by the patient, but it's an impressive research tool."

Still, Brin calls the effort and "information-rich opportunity," and tells Goetz that 23andMe plans to publish "several new associations that arose out of the main database, which now includes 50,000 individuals, that hint at the power of this new method." Brin also says that he is "in line to have his whole genome sequenced," and that "23andMe is considering offering whole-genome tests" at a yet-undisclosed price.

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