New Effort by 23andMe Could Increase Diversity in Genetic Research
April 5, 2016
NIH grant funds research leveraging genetic ancestry to uncover variants associated with disease
Mountain View, California – April 5, 2016 – 23andMe, Inc., the leading personal genetics company, today announced that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded a promising new study by scientists at 23andMe that could help alleviate some of the existing disparities in genetics research between people of European ancestry and people of African, Latino and Asian ancestry.
The $250,000 Small Business Innovation Research Grant will go toward developing an analysis pipeline that is an alternative to the traditional genome wide association study (GWAS) for identifying genetic variants associated with disease. 23andMe expects the new pipeline to provide insight into genetic variants important for populations that are underrepresented in current research.
“This could help reduce the research disparities among groups in the United States and elsewhere,” said Kasia Bryc, the senior scientist and population geneticist at 23andMe, who will lead the research. “The scientific impact of findings from this research may be important.”
Some estimates show that more than 90 percent of the research into the genetics underlying disease has been conducted on people of European ancestry. There are a number of reasons for this — historical, cultural, economic and social. The lack of diversity has meant that Europeans have benefitted disproportionately. By leveraging 23andMe’s large and ethnically mixed customer base, researchers hope to change that.
Researchers at 23andMe will use a method called mapping by admixture linkage disequilibrium, or admixture mapping. Although admixture mapping was first used decades ago, tapping into 23andMe’s database would take admixture mapping to a much larger scale than ever before.
Currently 23andMe has more than 1.2 million customers, 80 percent of whom have consented to participate in research. That customer base includes large numbers of self-identified African Americans, Latinos and Asians. 23andMe has innovated methods for predicting ancestry and fine-scale genetic mapping that can also be crucial for detecting associations with disease via admixture mapping. This method works by tapping into genetic variants, or sets of variants, that are found more frequently in one ancestral group. In admixed populations — such as African Americans and Latinos who have mixed European, African and Native American ancestry — using this method may be a way to more easily identify disease-causing variants. 23andMe researchers believe this work could help uncover genetic variants associated with disease in people of both European and non-European ancestry.
Researchers will study admixed individuals with certain diseases in common, looking for large amounts of shared ancestry located in the same regions of the genome. These genetic regions of shared ancestry should also be associated with the in-common disease, researchers hope.
23andMe’s research will determine whether admixture mapping could become a powerful tool that is complementary to large-scale genome wide association studies. Beyond what the study could do to alleviate some of the huge disparities in genetics research between people with European and non-European ancestry, the work could also help point the way in other areas, including guiding development of drug targets.
23andMe, Inc., headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA, is a leading consumer genetics and research company. Founded in 2006, the company’s mission is to help people access, understand, and benefit from the human genome. 23andMe has pioneered direct access to genetic information as the only company with multiple FDA clearances for genetic health reports. The company has created the world’s largest crowdsourced platform for genetic research, with 80% of its customers electing to participate. The 23andMe research platform has generated more than 180 publications on the genetic underpinnings of a wide range of diseases. The platform also powers the 23andMe Therapeutics group, currently pursuing drug discovery programs rooted in human genetics across a spectrum of disease areas, including oncology, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases, in addition to other therapeutic areas. More information is available at www.23andMe.com.