The burgeoning field of do-it-yourself biomedical research got a major endorsement this week when the genetic testing heavyweight 23andMe announced it had bought the community health site CureTogether for an undisclosed sum.
With CureTogether, a social networking site that enables users to conduct their own research studies by sharing and aggregating health information, California-based 23andMe appears to be getting serious about expanding its efforts in the Web-based, participant-driven research arena.
Already, peer-reviewed studies involving 23andMe’s 150,000 customers have yielded novel genetic insights into Parkinson’s disease, hypothyroidism and common traits such as freckling. CureTogether’s infrastructure and user base—which span some 500 medical conditions—should only make such patient-driven research easier.
“There are tremendous opportunities for our members and for future research by integrating the 23andMe and the CureTogether platforms and phenotypic data,” CureTogether cofounder Daniel Reda, who will now serve as 23andMe’s senior product manager, said in a statement.
23andMe will face competition, though. PatientsLikeMe, Quantified Self and DIYgenomics are just a few of the community portals that now facilitate crowdsourced biomedical research. “Participatory health initiatives are becoming part of the public health ecosystem,” Melanie Swan, the founder of DIYgenomics, wrote in a study published earlier this year the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
Two years ago, Nature Medicine profiled one such participatory health startup called Genomera (see ‘Personalized investigation’ from our September 2010 issue). At the time, chief executive Greg Biggers was just developing the Palo Alto, California-based company’s platforms. But in the intervening years, Biggers has been busy tweaking the cloud-based software, testifying before the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues about amateurs participating in research and helping academics, as well as lay users, run analyses on his website.
Now, Biggers says his goal of a prospective, longitudinal study that can yield scientifically valid results has almost been achieved. Currently, the site hosts an ongoing study that is examining the effects of whole-fat butter on human cognition. (Biggers declined to share more details from the study on his beta site.)
“Since the first study we helped orchestrate [on vitamin B metabolism], we have proven two important items,” he says. “That participant-driven research is credible and productive, and that Internet study operations bring efficiency and scale to the world of health research.”
That’s a message that still has some skeptics in the ivory towers of most universities, but it doesn’t seem to have escaped 23andMe.
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