23andMe, the Google-backed genetic-testing startup run by Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Google cofounder Sergey Brin, has everyone from Rupert Murdoch on down spitting into test tubes at parties. Too bad it's useless!
The big idea behind 23andMe and a passel of other gene startups was to make genetic testing affordable and encourage consumers to share their data online, with the notion that they'd then discover patterns linking common diseases. But finding links between diseases and genes has proven much harder than expected.
"With only a few exceptions, what the genomics companies are doing right now is recreational genomics," says David Goldstein, a Duke University geneticist who wrote a recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine about the problem. Well, 23andMe does call its test-tube events "spit parties."
In a way, this is a positive for 23andMe, which has come under increasing scrutiny by state regulators for providing an unlicensed medical service. Now Wojcicki can claim, with scientific rigor, that her "tests" are nothing more than a party game. It does raise one question, however: How did a recreational gene-tester with a failed career in biotech investing manage to get a seat on the board of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health?