23andMe inks deal with firm to develop drug for skin conditions

23andMe signs deal with drug firm to make treatments for psoriasis, lupus and Crohn’s out of an antibody it created using its customers’ DNA

  • Cheap DNA test firm found antibody after researching its customer’s spit, hair
  • Antibody blocked proteins linked to chronic skin and inflammatory conditions 
  • Deal means Spanish drugmaker has rights to develop and sell drugs using it

DNA testing firm 23andMe has handed over the licence to an antibody it has created using customers’ genetic data to develop drugs for skin conditions.

Spanish drugmaker Almirall has bought the rights to turn the protein into viable anti-inflammatory medication for patients around the world. 

The deal marks the first time genetic information collected by 23andMe – known for its cheap ancestry spit tests – will be used for commercial drug development.  

Roughly 80 per cent of the 10million people who’ve signed up to 23andMe have consented for their DNA, mostly saliva and hair, to be used for research. 

Popular DNA test firm 23andMe has handed over the licence to antibodies it developed to treat skin conditions using customers’ genetic data

Using this genetic material, the firm discovered some of its customers possessed antibodies that blocked small proteins known as IL-36 cytokines. It developed a form of the antibody in-house.

These are linked to skin conditions psoriasis and lupus, as well as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. 

Kenneth Hillan, head of therapeutics at 23andMe, said: ‘Working with Almirall, we’re pleased to be furthering 23andMe’s mission of helping people benefit from genetic insights.

‘As a leader in medical dermatology, we felt Almirall was the best company to take this program forward and ultimately develop an effective therapy for patients.’

Emily Drabant Conley, vice president of business development, added: ‘This is a seminal moment for 23andMe. We’ve now gone from database to discovery to developing a drug.’

The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed. 

The Spanish drugmaker said it will continue to develop the antibody into a viable treatment and push for clinical trials in humans as soon as possible.

Consumer DNA tests arrived in Britain in 2014. The first test to arrive – a £79 spit test made by 23andMe – offered users the chance to discover where in the world their ancestors came from, and how their DNA influences their facial features, taste, smell and other traits.

Spanish drugmaker Almirall bought the rights to turn the bacteria-killing proteins into a viable treatment and start selling it to patients around the world

For £149 it also offered a ‘health predispositions’ service, telling people how their genetics could raise their risk of type two diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Other similar tests have followed, made by companies such as Orig3n, Vitagene and Lets Get Checked.

Some doctors have slammed the tests – which are widely available in pharmacists and online – because they can be easily misinterpreted, they say.

In October, a panel of experts from Southampton University, Exeter University and Southampton Hospital said ‘direct-to-consumer’ genetic tests are unreliable and leave people confused and uncertain.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, they said genetic information is complex and even if people are shown to be at risk they need carefully walking through the results by a doctor – not left to panic at home.

The writers, who include Professor Anneke Lucassen, president of the British Society for Genetic Medicine, said these tests should ‘absolutely not be used to inform health decisions without further scrutiny’.

DIY DNA testing kits that predict if you are at risk of cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s are ‘unreliable’, warn doctors 

The genetic tests, some of which claim to show ‘predispositions’ for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, can be bought cheaply online.

Experts fear the NHS will have to ‘pick up the pieces’ if patients are falsely told they may be prone to genetic disorders over the busy winter period.

Dr Imran Rafi, a GP who specialises in genomics, told the Royal College of GPs’ annual conference the tests have a ‘high degree of false-negatives and positives’ and that managing the fallout could use up valuable ‘NHS time and resources’. 

He revealed when he took a DNA test sold by the company 23andMe it told him he had little risk of going bald – despite the fact he is heavily balding.

He added: ‘We should not be taking the results of these tests at face value.’ Consumer DNA tests, which first arrived in Britain in 2014, are booming in popularity.

Patients are sent a kit directly to their door, where they swab their cheek and then send it off to a laboratory for analysis.  

A London GP, who did not want to be named, told the panel: ‘The floodgates are wide open… I don’t dare guess how many of our patients under 30 are going to have some sort of genomic testing pack for Christmas.’

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