Genetic Future

i-572032a2e8073b8f6a5b5774105f26a8-pregnant-laptop-lg.jpgPersonal genomics company 23andMe has just launched an online community of “mommy bloggers” – a move I can only describe as sheer marketing genius.

I’ll give you a moment to let the vision sink in. Imagine a group of women hungry for information about the best way to ensure the future health and wellbeing of their unborn children. Now imagine a website packed with sincere, caring mother-types – most of them well-established bloggers with a strong existing fan base – writing about the real day-to-day issues that mothers care about (in the words of one recruit: “momming, aging, and my twenty year quest to lose the same ten pounds”; no doubt there will also be photos of puppies). Now imagine that those same bloggers have all been given a 23andMe genome scan and are writing excitedly about their results and what they mean for their health and their family.

Throw in some fancy web tools (you need to create a demo account to view them) that allow you to track the progress of your pregnancy and compare your experience with that of other mothers – and that, my friends, is pure Web 2.0 gold. Come for the enthralling conversations about cloth vs disposable; stay for the experience of comparing your weight gain in week 15 with hundreds of other expecting women; and hey, while you’re here, why don’t you get yourself a genome scan? Everyone else is talking about their rs662799 genotype this week – wouldn’t it be great if you knew what your genotype was? And while you’re at it, why not order a few extra kits at a discounted rate for the rest of the family?



i-c7f9e46e151948124c875b18cc517027-23andme_preg_ad.jpgThe message is right there in the tastefully foetus-coloured box on the right of the Pregnancy Community front page: “Explore the genetic legacy your child will inherit from you and your partner.”

Of course this is more than just a simple recruitment exercise. For personal genomics to succeed and flourish it needs to hugely expand its market beyond pale Wired-reading informavores into the general population; personal genomics needs to be something that everyone knows about and thinks is cool and interesting. That process is already well underway (the 23andMe co-founders appearing on Oprah providing a major boost), and the establishment of strong online communities with something to talk about – be it pregnancy or Parkinson’s - who also just happen to have all had genome scans done is yet another important step in that direction.

And this isn’t just about making genome scans cool. There are a whole range of genetic products that have a vast potential market currently untapped due to social taboos against them. Building a community like this, if done well – and I have little doubt that the vast and nimble PR engine of 23andMe will do it well – is an opportunity to slowly push the zeitgeist in a direction that is favourable to the company’s own business interests.

Finally, 23andMe is potentially creating an army of women who will go nuts at any attempt by regulatory agencies to legislate away direct access to personal genomic data. Say you’re a member of congress considering a bill to restrict access to direct-to-consumer genetic testing: on the one hand you have an angry letter containing at least fourteen exclamation marks from Dr Steve Murphy, arguing that doctors need to save people from the horror of seeing their own genomes unprotected; on the other hand you have a grassroots movement of thousands of outraged woman voters yelling that restricting their access to genetic information violates their rights and endangers the health of their future children. Tough choice. 

What’s in it for the mommy bloggers? I don’t know if they’re being paid, but I can tell you that many of them were invited on a grand tour of 23andMe and Google HQ back in January, where they were exposed to the full force of Google coolness combined with the poise and charm of 23andMe’s famously pink-toned girl power brigade. Here’s one of those bloggers gushing immediately after the meeting:

The last thing I’ll say about the trip is this–the two co-founders of 23andMe are really amazing, smart, beautiful women. Linda [Avey] and Anne [Wojcicki] are visionaries, and meeting them and seeing them bring their dream to life felt a bit to me like seeing the promises my mother made to me about feminism come true. Maybe that sounds a bit melodramatic, but 23andMe is women-driven and you can tell. It rocked. [my emphasis]

In other words, 23andMe = Feminism 2.0.

OK, so I probably couldn’t read a typical mommy blogger for more than five minutes before either falling asleep or gagging (I’m sorry, I just don’t like to read about placenta) – but then it appears I’m no longer 23andMe’s core demographic. Oprah has spoken, the sisters have moved in, and the market is moving on.

Update The initiative gets coverage in an overwhelmingly positive story on Good Morning America; 23andMe co-founders Avey and Wojcicki write in a post on the company’s corporate blog that “[a]s our community grows, the 23andMe research platform is primed and ready to start analyzing the potential genetic underpinnings of pregnancy complications”; Steve Murphy calls it a “BS PR move“.

Comments

  1. #1 N/A
    March 31, 2009

    Well, on a personal note, with 23andMe pretty much taking over the “female” demographics, it isn’t worth it for me to have a career in medical genetics (on the clinical side).

    Looks like 23andMe will become the big boy among personal genetic testing companies.

    Good luck 23andMe. Send me some lab tests as I will work as a pathologist instead.

  2. #2 Russell
    March 31, 2009

    I’d sign up with 23andme, if only it told which APOE alleles one has. Seems to me it’s falling down on the basics.

  3. #3 MattK
    March 31, 2009

    Damn but I hate cynical manipulative nihilistic marketing drones.

  4. #4 Steven Murphy MD
    March 31, 2009

    Brilliant? Have you seen the http://pregnant.thebump.com/

    Or thenest.com?

    Everyone knows that these sites work. Now mix in the inflammatory compunds called eugenics and prenatal genetics, I am dying to see what happens here. Malpractice, lawsuits, bad advice all to obtain samples…..the journalist on GMA said so herself. “In order to ‘help the community’ 23andME needs more samples, to do so they are turning to pregnant women”

    Ahh, my pregnant wife, so easily manipulated by marketers…..
    Nothing new there, old tricks, done very well….

    -Steve

  5. #5 Tera Eerkes
    March 31, 2009

    I have a personal cautionary tale….

    I’m a trained Ph.D., a CEO of a research-oriented testing company, a mother of one, and pregnant with my second.

    I’m in the rare position of actually understanding the limited medical value of these types of DTC tests, and while I still support their future development, am cautious about their current incarnation.

    But, if I was to be completely honest, even I could be tempted by this move. It’s really beautiful how it taps into the very ripe ground of what I call “parent paranoia”.

    There is no doubt that this will motivate new adoptees, those other than the pale Wired-reading demographic previously indoctrinated.

    I have a personal reason to be scared for people though.

    Late in my first pregnancy, I received some very unsettling genetic news (from a Dr., not a DTC company) that had profound potential to affect my and my baby’s health. For privacy’s sake, I won’t be explicit about the details.

    However, it had a huge impact on our lives. It took a lot of late nights and frankly, tears, to come to grips with the threat that this information implied. We’ve actually had to learn to live differently.

    And my information was similar to what many women may find in their 23andMe reports – A genetic marker that has a strong chance of causing problems in the future, but is not guaranteed to do so, and for which there is no treatment or alternative other than to wait, and see.

    I wouldn’t wish my experience on any mother.

    I think it is fairly irresponsible for 23andMe to assume that the unproven overall good of their information will outweigh the potential anxiety it will undoubtedly create for some.

  6. #6 Misha
    March 31, 2009

    I believe that this all of this is nothing more than an elaborate scheme to piss off the Sherpa.

  7. #7 Daniel MacArthur
    March 31, 2009

    Steve,

    Sure, it’s not a new idea, but it’s been extremely well-timed and well-executed here, and I suspect it will be enormously effective.

    Tera,

    Point taken – but on the bright side, I guess this type of community creates a ready-made online support network for similarly shocked customers.

  8. #8 Daniel MacArthur
    March 31, 2009

    Misha,

    Well, it’s working. He just scoffed at “the mutual admiration society” on Twitter. :-)

  9. #9 Steven Murphy MD
    March 31, 2009

    Pissed? My wife just f’in signed up…..

    jk.

    -Steve

  10. #10 Prof. Bleen
    March 31, 2009

    Reading the blogger profiles will make you weep for humanity. Says Motherhood Uncensored:

    I took the plunge into motherhood via a surprise pregnancy and am now neck deep with a 4.5 year old daughter, 2-year-old son, and a newborn daughter.

    They were all surprises.

    What level of naïveté is required to take medical advice from someone who couldn’t manage to master birth control in three tries? Someone who gives “college professor” and “designer shoe glutton” equal billing on her résumé? Normally I don’t drink, but this travesty merits an exception.

  11. #11 Neil
    April 1, 2009

    And my information was similar to what many women may find in their 23andMe reports – A genetic marker that has a strong chance of causing problems in the future, but is not guaranteed to do so, and for which there is no treatment or alternative other than to wait, and see.

    This is a general argument against allowing genetic curiosity for the few to spill over into societally-directed screening for the many, and reminds me of Germaine Greer’s stance on cervical cancer screening – see e.g.:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1999/mar/07/society

    i.e. we should be asking what is it for – other than money-making – if it doesn’t really do any good?

  12. #12 Laura
    April 1, 2009

    I share your cynicism about this marketing ploy, and the concerns stated by other commenters about the utility and ethics of genetic screens offered by 23andMe, but I have a quibble with this part of your post:

    “23andMe = Feminism 2.0. Spitting into a tube is striking a powerful blow against the patriarchy on behalf of the sisterhood. Somehow.”

    I think this is self-evident, but I’ll say it anyway: Spitting into a tube is not the point — the point is that 23andMe is a successful business venture run by women in science. Female role models are scarce among entrepreneurs, CEOs, and high-ranked science and technology professionals. I don’t think it’s a stretch for the blogger you quoted to point out that these women would not have been so successful in their careers without the advances of feminism. It’s one thing to deride their sinister-yet-ingenious marketing campaign, but there’s no need to mock women-run businesses in general by sneering about “sisterhood” when other women find them in some way inspiring.

  13. #13 Dana Waring
    April 1, 2009

    Daniel, I am big fan. Just yesterday I wrote to one of the bloggers (who I read) who was on GMA, Kelcey from mamabirddiaries.com offering to talk more if she wanted and recommending your site as a source of balanced and timely info.

    But. The derision towards ” mommmy bloggers” is not necessary. I get that its maybe not your thing, but surely there is a bit of a glass houses thing happening here? When “real” science writers rip on bloggers and disregard what you are saying due to your chosen medium, I bet you may sometimes be quick to dismiss them as out of touch..?

    I’m with you on the concerns of a for profit entity doing this sort of broad-based education and outreach work, which I agree could very easily translate into a political movement. But lay off the bloggers!

    On a personal note, I found the experience of the genetic testing I had during both my pregnancies very confusing and distressing. I can totally see why what 23andme is offering is going to get a huge response – the docs I saw were great but not the most helpful in terms of helping me get my mind around ” risk” and where I fit on that scale. It can be very isolating. 23andme is right that people are hungry for this type of information and support. I wish there was a way to decouple this – support and info about genetics and pregnancy, and the money-making venture.

  14. #14 Neil
    April 2, 2009

    With regard genetic risk:

    If we take the risk of major genetic disease (in families without a history of major genetic disease …) as 1 in 500, then from a maternal age of about 30 upwards the risk of Down’s syndrome exceeds that. Most of a hospital’s limited “genetic” counselling expertise will be spent on the latter (acquired) problems, leaving the former (innate) ones to self-help groups. Who won’t say, on the whole “most of what we say doesn’t matter very much: instead, we advise you to have your family young”.

    However, regardless of the personal value of genetic testing to most people, 23andme’s research into the genetics of complications of pregnancy could be genuinely useful:

    https://www.23andme.com/research/

  15. #15 Daniel MacArthur
    April 2, 2009

    Laura,

    Point taken – I’ve deleted the more potentially offensive sections of that paragraph. No offence was intended to the sisterhood.

    Dana,

    Hmmm… the post wasn’t intended to express derision towards all mommy bloggers, although I can see how it could be read that way. My main point in that final paragraph wasn’t that mommy bloggers are bad writers, but that as a nerdy childless male under 30 I’m so far from their target demographic that we might as well be speaking a different language.

    In other words, mommy bloggers: it’s not you, it’s me. Please don’t hate me.

    I’ll also note, based on an analysis of a full 35 minutes of dedicated web browsing, that while there is a vast sea of undifferentiated mommy bloggers churning out comforting dross there are also many individual bloggers who do a superb job of communicating complex emotional topics to a broad audience; and 23andMe’s new recruits seem to be unusually highly enriched for that latter group.

    Neil – good points.

  16. #16 Laura
    April 2, 2009

    Daniel, thanks for listening and for not getting defensive. I believe that you were just being sarcastic and meant no offense, but not everyone reacts so calmly to criticism. I respect that.

  17. #17 Keith
    April 3, 2009

    I guess I just don’t understand feminism. This company is bankrolled by a bunch of men, the founder’s husband being the main one. He is using the company as a tool to try to find the etiology of Parkinson’s disease which he may have one day due to a family history. Isn’t this another case of women depending on men?

  18. #18 Mr. Gunn
    April 3, 2009

    Keith – Yikes. 23andme is popular due to Google, but they’re making an honest go of it.

    LOL @ Steve Let us know how your wife gets on, I’m sure she’s glad she’s got the right person to explain her results to her.

  19. #19 Daniel MacArthur
    April 3, 2009

    Keith,

    I agree with Mr. Gunn – yikes. Only a fraction of 23andMe’s capital came from Google, and Avey and Wojcicki have done an absolutely stunning job of building the company up.

    I do think the feminism 2.0 schtick has been laid on a little thick here, but full credit to them for what they’ve achieved.

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