A tweet from personal genomics company 23andMe (see screenshot below) sparked my interest:
A little Google-trawling revealed (see page 15 of this PDF
article from Palo Alto Online) that 23andMe offered free genome scans to all of the participants in the currently ongoing Palo Alto Senior Games
, a massive sporting event that only permits participants over the age of 50.
Giving away 4,500 free genome scans is a pretty heavy investment – at the current retail price of $399 per kit, that’s an astonishing $1.8 million worth of testing. What does 23andMe expect in return? From the Palo Alto Online article:
23andme did not target the 2009 Senior Games solely for its numbers, but because the company wants to find the genetic factors for healthy aging, [23andMe spokesman Rajiv] Mahadevan said. What’s better than some 12,000 healthy, active athletes all over age 50?
The beautiful thing about this group is that they epitomize healthy living,” Mahadevan said.
Basically, 23andMe is looking for the genetic secrets to a healthy, active old age, and they’re willing to spend a hefty chunk of money to get it. They haven’t simply relied on the attraction of free stuff to attract participants, either – here’s their highly targeted advertisement to Games participants, placed strategically below the Palo Alto Online article linked above:
Now, it would be easy to portray this strategy in sinister tones – the evil corporation stealing the genetic secrets of elderly athletes – but it seems to me that 23andMe has been fairly open about their intentions here, and I’m also genuinely intrigued about the potential of this set of individuals as research subjects. Physical activity extending into later life is a powerful protective factor against a multitude of common diseases, and digging into the molecular basis of variation in late-life physical performance could provide some genuinely useful and health-relevant insights.
That’s not to say that getting useful results out of this cohort will be easy; but it seems plausible to me that many of the interesting traits that could be mined for this cohort would be determined by common variants (for reasons involving natural selection and post-reproductive traits, which are a topic for another post), and if a reasonable fraction of the 4,500 recruits end up progressing into the research stage that’s a decent-sized cohort to draw on.
I’ve been fairly optimistic
about the prospects of 23andMe’s participant-driven research approach in the past. If this study is done well – and 23andMe certainly has access to the expertise and resources required to do it well – then we might very well see some intriguing (and publishable) results coming out of this cohort in the next year or so…
Edit 12/08/09: I somehow wrote “skeptical” when I meant precisely the opposite…