23andMe, Michael J. Fox Foundation to Study Genetic Factors of Parkinson’s

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Personal genetic testing firm 23andMe sells genetic testing kits to consumers as a business, but it also contributes useful medical data that could help cure disease. The company has announced an expansion of its Parkinson’s disease research in cooperation with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The foundation has awarded 23andMe a $ 4 million grant to gather more data that will be shared with the medical community.

A 23andMe genetic testing kit comes in two different versions. There’s the $ 99 ancestry service that uses population genetics to estimate whereabouts your ancestors came from and search for other customers with matching DNA segments. Then there’s the $ 199 health and ancestry service. This one uses your genes to produce reports about your health and disease risk. This part of 23andMe’s offering got it in trouble with federal authorities a few years ago, but 23andMe revamped its reports and is now in compliance with regulations.

The partnership between 23andMe and the Michael J. Fox Foundation will be part of the Fox Insight project, which predates the new initiative. Thus far, the Fox Insight website has been using medical questionnaires and a network of volunteers (both with and without Parkinson’s) to help researchers study the disease. With the help of 23andMe, Fox Insight will be offering free genetic testing kits to all participants with Parkinson’s. 23andMe does not currently offer genetic data on Parkinson’s as part of its consumer testing reports, so this will be a separate experience.

A dark “Lewy body” in a neuron that causes cell death in Parkinson’s.

The $ 4 million grant covers the distribution of kits, as well as storage and analysis of data. Participation in the genetic testing aspect of the project is completely optional, and the foundation promises all genetic data will be anonymized to prevent anyone from being identified. 23andMe has been operating its own Parkinson’s research program with more than 12,000 patients since 2009. These study participants are now invited to be part of the Fox Insight program.

Parkinson’s is a long-term degenerative neurological disease that affects more than 6 million people globally. Characterized by tremors and difficulty moving, the average life expectancy following diagnosis is 10 years. The exact causes are unknown, but doctors suspect a combination of genetic and environmental factors–everything from head injury to pesticide exposure has been suggested. Having more genetic data to go along with the environmental data provided by Fox Insight participants could help doctors determine which treatments to pursue and (hopefully) improve the lives of patients.

Now read: PCMag’s 23andMe review

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