23andMe launches predisposition test for Type 2 diabetes

Reactions to the news are mixed, with some experts saying the test is unlikely to make much of a difference.
By Jonah Comstock
01:26 pm

At SXSW in Austin this weekend, consumer genomics company 23andMe unveiled its latest test, a predisposition report on Type 2 diabetes.

The test, which has not undergone FDA clearance and does not purport to diagnose a condition, is designed to help people understand when they’re at a higher-than-normal risk for Type 2 diabetes so they can alter their lifestyle. To assist with the latter piece, the company is leaning on its new relationship with Lark Health.

This is a significant launch from 23andMe as it’s the first polygenic test the company has offered based on its own data (at least, the first since it pulled its health tests from the market in 2013). The announcement was accompanied by a detailed whitepaper.

Why it matters

For a company like 23andMe, increasing the number of tests they offer adds a lot of value, and can have a snowball effect: the more data they collect, the more tests they can develop and the more tests they offer the more data they can collect (since new tests will drive new users to the service).

And tests like this, that are built from 23andMe’s proprietary data store, give the company a competitive advantage against consumer genomics companies without their database.

Additionally, Type 2 diabetes is a huge problem, affecting nearly one in 10 Americans and costing the healthcare system more than $327 billion a year, according to the CDC and the American Diabetes Association.

23andMe hopes that by letting more people know they’re at risk, they can prevent some number of cases before they happen.

Around the web

The announcement has been met with quite a bit of skepticism from members of the scientific community, as well as the health and tech press.

In a Wired piece, geneticists from Scripps and Emory argue that the test is likely to be inaccurate for non-white people, especially African Americans — the very demographic at the highest risk for Type 2 diabetes. 23andMe disputes the claim.

Additionally, STAT News interviewed experts who contend that the test is not currently proven to do any better than the existing way of assessing diabetes risk: lifestyle and demographic screeners.

The problem is that diagnosis has never been the difficult part of treating and preventing diabetes. The hard part, Massachusetts General endocronologist James Meigs told the MIT Technology Review, is convincing people to make lifestyle changes, which isn’t meaningfully advanced by the test.

On Twitter, digital health maven and Scripps cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol was more optimistic, contrasting 23andMe’s evidence-based approach with the widespread qualitative diagnosis of pre-diabetes, which was criticized in a recent Science editorial.

What’s the trend

The news builds on 23andMe’s partnership with Lark Health that was announced in January and demonstrates how 23andMe sees Lark’s app helping its customers.

The company has been introducing more and more tests since it returned to the market, but that’s not all it’s up to. Business Insider reports that the company is using its trove of data to develop its own drugs. It currently has 13 drugs in its pipeline.

On the record

"Diabetes is a significant health issue in the United States that is expected to impact nearly half of the population,” Anne Wojcicki, CEO and cofounder of 23andMe, said in a statement. “When customers learn about their genetic likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes, we believe there is an opportunity to motivate them to change their lifestyle and ultimately to help them prevent the disease.”


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