23andMe Partners With Big Pharma

By Free Radicalindex

In light of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent revelation of her Native American heritage, we have seen the political importance of genetic testing. However, gene testing is not only politically significant, it is also extremely profitable as genomic company 23andMe partnered with pharmaceutical giant Glaxo in July for $300 million. Glaxo will use the data culled from 23andMe’s more than 5 million customers to create new drugs.

“By working with GSK, we believe we will accelerate the development of breakthroughs,” said 23andMe CEO Anne Wojciki.

While some observers agree that the new partnership has scientific merit, they are concerned with more proprietary matters. The data will be aggregated and de-identified from individual customers. Individuals also had the option to opt in to the program (nearly 80 percent did).  They can opt out of the program, which will happen at different levels and after a grace period as some data is required to stay on file.

The new program, however, raises important questions about ownership. There is no provision in place that would provide compensation to former 23andMe customers for any profit made from new drugs. Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest asked, “Are they going to offer rebates to people who opt in so their customers aren’t paying for the privilege of 23andMe working with a for-profit company in a for-profit research project?”

And though security measures have been implemented to protect users’ privacy, the recent hacking of both government, nonprofit, and commercial entities highlights the danger of having so much valuable information that can be taken by enterprising cyber thiefs. Some observers say that a potential breach can have even greater ramifications. If an individual’s genetic identity is compromised, their family members are also vulnerable as a hacker has to simply browse social media to find blood relatives.

This is of special concern to African-Americans who have a history of enslavement and displacement and have turned to genetic companies to find traces of their heritage.

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