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Personal-genetics company patent raises hackles

Posted on behalf of Monya Baker.

The consumer-genetics testing company 23andMe, based in Mountain View, California, announced its first patent this week, and some of its customers aren’t happy. The company offers a US$299 service in which a customer can mail in a saliva sample for genetic analysis. Individuals can then log on to the company’s website to learn how their genetic variants relate to ancestry and disease. The company uses data from consenting customers to find genetic variants associated with disease and other traits.

According to a blog post by 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki, the patent “relates to our discovery of a variant in the SGK1 gene that may be protective against Parkinson’s disease in individuals who carry the rare risk-associated LRRK2 G2019S mutation.” It acknowledges that patenting genetic mutations is controversial, but says that the patent will be important if other companies want to pursue drug development.

Wojcicki wrote that the company intends to file more patents, the better to “move from the realm of academic publishing to the world of impacting lives by preventing, treating or curing disease”.

The post generated about a score of comments in the first two days, mainly from individuals asking how 23andMe intended to enforce its patent. One post also asks whether participants in the study were told of potential commercial impact, why 23andMe did not solicit feedback from customers, and why 23andMe claimed diagnostic use if its intention was drug development.

One post expressed a feeling of betrayal: “I had assumed that 23andMe was against patenting genes and felt in total cahoots all along with you guys. If I’d known you might go that route with my data, I’m not sure I would have answered any surveys.”

In response to comments, the company wrote: “We believe that patents should not be used to obstruct research or prevent people from accessing their own genetic information.”

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