It’s been a great couple years for the personal genomics company 23andMe: an Oprah appearance, a Invention of the Year accolade from Time magazine. But despite all the good press, last month the news turned sour: it was confirmed that 23andMe had laid off employees due to the economic downturn. “This was a very difficult decision,” a company statement read, “but one that we felt was necessary to achieve 23andMe’s long-term business development goals and maintain our strength in the industry.”
Which begs the question: What exactly are those “long-term business development goals” for 23andMe, and indeed for the nascent personal genomics industry as a whole?
The genomics companies claim their goal to help us live longer, better lives; to understand what diseases we’re predisposed to; and to better prepare for the future. But as Shannon Brownlee, author of the award-winning book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, writes in the November/December print issue of Mother Jones, this selling point isn’t what these companies are actually after. What they really want is your genetic data for large-scale research; in their hands, that data can be sold to researchers and Big Pharma to develop new medications—and for much more than peddling personal tests. “We are the broker,” 23andMe cofounder Linda Avey tells Brownlee. “We make the connection between [the drug firms] and the individuals.”
Consumers can plunk down as much as $68,500 on one of these tests. But as Brownlee points out, in many instances the data they get back isn’t even all that useful—or accurate. The personal genomics field is still in its infancy; even 23andMe mentions in its genetic reports that its findings shouldn’t be used by doctors for prescriptions. Actual, useful data is years, even decades away, she writes, though that won’t stop these services from cashing in on your DNA in the meantime.