Bioethics Blogs

Response to Call for Essays: Read the Fine Print Before Sending Your Spit to 23andMe

Editor’s note: This essay responds to an invitation (issued here and here) to submit commentaries on the ethical implications of partnerships between social media companies and biomedical researchers. The invitation is ongoing.   

Our genomic sequence constitutes the most sensitive and personal of information: uniquely identifying us, revealing our propensity to develop certain diseases and conditions, and exposing familial connections of close genetic relatives. In recent years, Big Data has taken firm hold in numerous sectors, revolutionizing the volume and velocity at which businesses can collect, curate, and use digital information. Consumers can track what they eat, their fertility, whether they are exercising, and how much they are sleeping. Combining these pieces of data with genomic and health information such as family history, health conditions, disease state, and demographic information constitutes a gold mine for scientific research.

 23andMe capitalized on the quantified self movement and consumers’ effusive willingness to collect and share personal data, transforming it into a highly profitable venture. Within the past year, 23andMe rapidly reinvigorated its business model, introducing Food and Drug Administration-compliant Carrier Screening Reports as part of its new Personal Genome Service, introduced on online recruitment platform for disease specific research cohorts, and publicized multimillion dollar partnerships with pharmaceutical giants such as Genentech.

In numerous media interviews, 23andMe CEO and cofounder Anne Wojcicki beams with positivity about how this model will revolutionize health care; empowering consumers with an awareness of the secrets of their genome while accelerating the speed of research and drug discovery. As one article in the San Francisco Chronicle characterized it, “23andMe wants to do for health what Google has done for the search: make massive quantities of information digital, accessible, and personal.” 23andMe made this vision a reality by digitalizing and compiling genotypic-phenotypic data into a searchable format for interested investigators to run queries in its Research Portal, an online searchable database of over genotyped individuals with more than 225 million phenotypic data points, including demographic, clinical information, and family history.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.