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Why GSK invested $300 million in 23andMe genetic drug discovery collaboration



Anne Wojcicki23andMe CEO Anne WojcickiGetty Images/Kimberly White

  • Consumer genetics company 23andMe is teaming up with UK drug giant GlaxoSmithKline to develop new drugs. 
  • As part of the four-year collaboration, GSK is committing $300 million to 23andMe, and, using 23andMe’s data, working on an experimental drug to treat Parkinson’s disease. 
  • The move comes shortly after ex-Genentech and former Calico executive Hal Barron joined GSK as its chief scientific officer and as the drug giant unveils its new R&D strategy. 

Pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline just made a $300 million bet in a consumer genetics company’s ability to find new treatments for patients. 

On Wednesday, GSK entered a four-year-long drug development collaboration with 23andMe. Using 23andMe’s data, GSK is also working on an experimental drug to treat Parkinson’s disease in patients with a particular mutation.

The announcement came as part of GSK’s second-quarter earnings and its attempts to refresh its research and development strategy. In 2017, GSK brought on former Genentech and Calico executive Hal Barron as its chief scientific officer and president of R&D. GSK said Wednesday that it plans to focus its research efforts on developing new treatments that act on the body’s immune system. 

Going into drug development may not seem like a key strategy for a company like 23andMe, which is best known for its genetics tests that tell you everything from how much Neanderthal DNA you have to potential health risks. But already, 23andMe has partnered with major pharmaceutical companies like Lundbeck and Pfizer, which hope to use the company’s data to develop their own drugs. And in 2015, 23andMe started getting into drug development on its own, hiring former Genentech executive Richard Scheller to lead the team. Scheller and GSK’s Barron were colleagues at Genentech. 

The idea is to use the genetic information 23andMe’s gathered from users who consent to share their information and use that to build therapies. The people who opt into sharing their data — that’s about 80% of users — are asked to answer survey questions about their health and habits. Those answers then feed research into links between genetics and certain conditions. If certain genes stand out, they could become targets that 23andMe goes after with a drug. Ideally, that drug could then be studied in clinical trials, possibly on people who participated in the initial research who have that condition.

“We’re a tiny biotech, but our goal is, rather than discover drugs based off of animal models, we’re going to discover drugs based off of data from human beings,” Emily Drabant-Conley, vice president of business development at 23andMe told Business Insider in 2017. “And hopefully that will help us to be more successful in creating more therapies.”

Scheller said on a call with reporters Wednesday that while 23andMe has made some progress identifying new drugs since then, it still has a way to go. 

We thought it was now the right time to team up with a large global organization that has a number of feasibilities way beyond what our still nascent group at 23andme is able to do,” Scheller said. 

For example, GSK already has a drug target identified to use in the collaboration, an experimental treatment for Parkinson’s disease that acts on a particular mutation. Barron said Wednesday that 23andMe has already identified 250 people with Parkinson’s who have this mutation in their database, which could make the process of enrolling a clinical trial much faster than if GSK were to go it alone.

 Scheller said that 23andMe has been looking at a number of disease areas including autoimmune conditions, liver disease, and osteoarthritis. 

GSK isn’t the only drugmaker tapping into other sources of data. In June, Swiss drug giant Roche acquired the rest of Foundation Medicine, a company that collects genetic data from samples of cancer tissue or blood, for $2.4 billion a few months after it acquired Flatiron Health, another cancer data company, for $1.9 billion. 

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