23andMe co-founder talks genetic testing for preventative healthcare at SXSW

Editor-in-Chief

Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe gave a keynote presentation at South by Southwest Interactive Sunday in which she claimed the cost of healthcare can be brought down by using genetics for preventive medicine.

Wojcicki, who used to work on Wall Street, said she saw that the healthcare industry has a profit incentive for illness, making money from things like the flu, obesity and diabetes. She said the industry has found ways to profit on things like sleep apnea and diabetes drugs to specialist bathing systems and wound care. Part of the economic incentive is that treatment is more lucrative than prevention, Wojcicki said.

“Obesity is awesome from a Wall Street perspective,” Wojcicki said. “It’s not just one disease - there are all sorts of related diseases to profit from.”

She described her vision for the future of preventative medicine, where she hopes affordable genetic sequencing combines with “big data.” Her company, 23andMe, harvests peoples’ genetic codes through saliva samples to research how genes can affect their susceptibility to certain diseases and their potential reaction to treatments.

“The principle is that genetic information is the basis for personalized medicine,” Wojcicki said. “You don’t want to give your child Benadryl on an overnight flight to Europe if you know that it will make them hyper. Knowing your genetic health risks will help you make better decisions.”

One day she hopes preventative healthcare could be harnessed to prevent diabetes or lower the risk for a heart attacks.

“Everyone has the right to get access to their genetic information and to understand it,” she said. “It’s your data, it’s all about you.”

In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered 23andMe to stop marketing its “Saliva Collection Kit and Personal Genome Service,” saying it had yet to demonstrate the accuracy of those tests.

“It has slowed up the number of people signing up,” Wojcicki admitted. “But we have 650,000 people in our database and are being inundated with requests from academics and foreign partners. We have more of this data than anyone else in the world.”

Learning details of any genetic conditions through a test can inspire someone to change their lifestyle to improve their health, Wojcicki said.

“23andMe set out to try and change healthcare, this is not an easy business,” she said. “This is not a coffee shop in Austin. The system sucks and we have to do something to try to change it.”