GSK Buys $300 Million Stake in 23andMe for Drug Research Data

Marcia Frellick

July 27, 2018

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has acquired a $300 million stake in privately held consumer genetics company 23andMe as it revamps its approach to research, both companies announced on Wednesday in a news release.

The companies agreed to a 4-year deal, with an option for a fifth, to develop new drugs more efficiently and to more quickly identify patients for clinical trials.

The deal means GSK can tap into 23andMe's 5 million customers, 80% of whom have agreed to share their deidentified personal data for research. GSK will become 23andMe's exclusive partner for drug discovery programs and funding. Proceeds will be split equally.

Anne Wojcicki, CEO and cofounder of 23andMe, said in the release: "By leveraging the genetic and phenotypic information provided by consenting 23andMe customers and combining it with GSK's incredible expertise and resources in drug discovery, we believe we can more quickly make treating and curing diseases a reality."

Alliance May Speed Research for Parkinson's Treatment

One of the first projects for the partnership, according to the press release, is to recruit patients to help GSK test its new treatment for Parkinson's disease, an inhibitor of the leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) gene, which encodes the protein dardarin.

The inhibitor is in preclinical development. With access to 23andMe, the program can leverage customers who know their LRRK2 variant status.

"Together, GSK and 23andMe are expected to more effectively target and rapidly recruit patients with defined LRRK2 mutations in order to reach clinical proof of concept," the companies write in the release.

Ethicist Says Alliance Raises Questions

Arthur Caplan, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, New York City, told Medscape Medical News that the collaboration brings up some key issues. (Caplan serves as a contributing author and advisor for Medscape).

One is whether the 23andMe customers truly knew what they were agreeing to when they sent in their swab and agreed to let their data be used for research.

"They may have checked the box that said, 'Yes, I'd like to be in medical research,' but it doesn't say, 'Yes, I'd like to send in my DNA and pay you so you can sell it at a profit to Glaxo,' " Caplan said. "Medical research sounds noble. There's always a bit of a bait-and-switch."

Another issue is that the people who can pay for the 23andMe service are not likely to be a diverse group, Caplan said.

"I'm sure minorities are underrepresented," he said. "Will information come out that will benefit everybody?"

A third issue is whether this alliance will affect people's willingness in the future to contribute their DNA information for research if they think the information might be sold to a pharma giant, he said.

Kayte Spector-Bagdady, JD, MBE, chief of the Research Ethics Service in the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Medscape Medical News she agreed that the people who can afford the DNA/ancestry tests or can afford the insurance to cover the tests may be primarily white or Asian, educated, and have higher income, a problem with genetic profiles in biobanks worldwide.

"Structurally, it's hard to get around that problem" with private enterprises, she said.

She noted that's something the National Institutes of Health's "All of Us" effort to collect samples from 1 million people is trying to overcome — to get samples from a wider range of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Spector-Bagdady said she hopes that eventually, private and public databases will be able to pool data "to help as many people as possible," though she noted that's difficult because data are gathered in different ways with different kinds of informed consent.

"No one entity can go this alone," she said.

Partnership Not the First of Its Kind

GSK and 23andMe are not the first to enter into such a relationship. Amgen acquired deCODE Genetics, based in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2012, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Geisinger Health System teamed up in 2014 to study the genetic determinants of human disease.

In June, Roche acquired the final portion of Foundation Medicine, a company that collects genetic data from samples of cancer tissue or blood, just months after it acquired another cancer data company, according to a press release.

Spector-Bagdady said that although these alliances have yet to produce blockbuster results, "it's this kind of data collection and collaboration and research that's required to see those kinds of advances in the near future.

"There's always the challenge for advances in technology, and genetics specifically get hyped up more than they're worth," she said. "We are definitely still in phases of data collection and application, as opposed to astronomical advances in the way we do medicine."

Hal Barron, chief scientific officer and president of research and development at GSK, said in an interview with CNBC Wednesday, "This collaboration with 23and me and other collaborations we have using human genetics to find the best targets suggest when you get a genetically validated target and you pursue it, it's twice as likely to end up being a medicine. We're also excited about the opportunity to leverage the patients — to have them be involved in this drug development process."

He noted a key factor in the collaboration is the size of the 23andMe database. The 5 million customers make the database about "10 times larger than some of the other databases that are out there," he said.

Possibly more important, Barron said, is 23andMe's ability to engage with and recontact patients, "because they are so excited about the opportunity to participate."

Richard Scheller, 23andMe's chief scientific officer, said in the CNBC interview, "I think people miss the idea that with over 5 million customers, it would be impossible to completely genome sequence everybody. That would cost billions of dollars and would be more information than anyone could even store in any database. We do genotype people, but when we find people with interesting genotypes, we then do their DNA sequence. So we think this is a more efficient way to capture important genomic information."

Dr Caplan has served as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant, or trustee for Johnson & Johnson's Panel for Compassionate Drug Use (unpaid position), and he currently serves as a contributing author and advisor for Medscape. Dr Spector-Bagdady has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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