Medland et al. (2009). Common Variants in the Trichohyalin Gene Are Associated with Straight Hair in Europeans. The American Journal of Human Genetics DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2009.10.009
A couple of weeks ago I reported on a presentation
‘s Nick Eriksson at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Honolulu, in which Eriksson presented data on a series of genome-wide association studies performed by the company using genetic and trait data from its customers.
Along with genetic analysis of a variety of other traits (such as asparagus anosmia
and photic sneeze
) Eriksson presented data on two novel regions significantly associated with hair curl, one close to the TCHH
gene and a second near WNT10A
(see the abstract
for details). I noted at the time that 23andMe appears to be doing a pretty good job of running genome-wide association studies, although of course the real test of this is independent replication.
Well, now we have replication (of a sort) for at least two of 23andMe’s novel findings – but unfortunately for the 23andMe crew the “replication” study has beaten them into print.
In this week’s issue of American Journal of Human Genetics an Australian group report a genome-wide association study of hair curl that uncovered both of the novel regions picked out by 23andMe’s scan (the very strong TCHH association is the headline finding, while WNT10A is mentioned briefly later in the text).
In a sense this is good news for 23andMe, in that it’s good, independent evidence that the company’s novel associations are robust. However, it’s also bad news: not only has the company been scooped on the hair curl findings, but this is a clear illustration that there are few phenotypic niches sufficiently obscure for 23andMe to be able to work safely without worrying about competition from academic consortia.
The Australian group that produced the hair curl study (led by Nick Martin
) has both the resources and the expertise to churn through the same sorts of commonly variable non-disease traits that 23andMe is well-powered to analyse, as their publication list
illustrates. Other rivals have even greater capacity for scoopage: ailing biotech deCODE, for instance, has genetic and detailed trait data for a hefty chunk of the Icelandic population that can easily be used to unravel the genetic architecture of whatever common trait it decides to turn its attention to.
One major advantage that 23andMe possesses over any of its rivals is a highly actively involved participant base, many of whom will remain available and willing to answer online surveys and purchase additional genetic tests so long as the company can keep drip-feeding them interesting nuggets of genetic information about themselves.
Is that enough to maintain a profitable business? The two waves of lay-offs (one in June, and a more recent one in October
) and the recent departure of co-founder Linda Avey
from the company suggest that there may be some uncertainty about that even within 23andMe. Still, there’s little question that the company has done more to establish the personal genomics industry than anyone else, and it’s still far better-placed than either of its two major rivals, deCODEme
. There are big changes coming in personal genomics, but I don’t expect to see 23andMe toppled from its pedestal any time in the near future.