GSK to access DNA data from millions by partnering with Google-funded 23andMe

With more than 5 million customers, 23andMe has a trove of information about the links between genes and disease.

The drug discovery giant, GlaxoSmithKline, has hedged a $300 million bet on genetics by buying a stake in the Silicon Valley gene testing company 23andMe.

The move will secure GSK exclusive access to the Google-backed firm’s vast DNA database, which it hopes will help unlock new treatments for a range of diseases.

It won’t yield new products overnight, but GSK's President of Research & Development Hal Barron believes it will accelerate GSK’s drug development work, which has lagged behind rivals in producing multi-billion dollar blockbuster drugs.

While 23andMe is best known for saliva-based test kits that offer users a glimpse into their genetic ancestry, it also has a three-year-old drug R&D unit, whose efforts will now merge with those of GSK researchers.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

With more than 5 million customers, 80 percent of whom have opted in to participate in the research, 23andMe has a trove of information about the links between genes and disease.

“Human genetics is going to represent a core component of our drug discovery strategy, so 23andMe is a terrific partner for us to jump-start our efforts,” said Barron, who joined GSK in January. “By studying genetically validated targets we think we can cut the cost of development in half or, putting it a different way, develop twice as many medicines for the same price.”

The first project will focus on an experimental GSK pill for Parkinson’s disease. It is linked to a specific gene mutation, towards which 23andMe has already identified hundreds of its users with the right genetic profile.

The 23andMe transaction marks Barron’s first deal to bolster pharma R&D, and is unlikely to be his last. “We’ll be looking for opportunities moving forward, but we’re going to keep a pretty high bar,” he told Reuters.

But by working with 23andMe, GSK can now scan the world’s largest human genetic database with associated health records, according to the privately owned firm’s therapeutics head Richard Scheller, who used to work with Barron at Genentech.

Barron will set out more details of his R&D strategy on 1 August in a presentation that is likely to overshadow their latest quarterly results.

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