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All Those 23andMe Spit Tests Were Part of a Bigger Plan


November 4, 2021

Kristen V. Brown

All Those 23andMe Spit Tests Were Part of a Bigger Plan

A few months ago, on the morning 23andMe Holding Co. was about to go public, Chief Executive Officer Anne Wojcicki received a framed sheet of paper she hadn’t seen in 15 years. As she was preparing to ring in the Nasdaq bell remotely from the courtyard of her company’s Silicon Valley headquarters, Patrick Chung, one of its earliest investors, presented her with the pitch document she’d shown him when she was first asking for money, reproduced on two pieces of paper so she could see both sides. The one-sheet outlined a radical transformation in the field of DNA testing.

Wojcicki’s plan back then was to turn genetics from the rarefied work of high-end labs into mainstream health and quasi entertainment products. First she’d sell tastemakers on her mail-in spit kits as a way to learn sort-of-interesting things about their DNA makeup, such as its likely ancestral origins and the chance it would lead to certain health conditions. Eventually she’d be able to lower prices enough to make the kits broadly accessible, allowing 23andMe to build a database big enough to identify new links between diseases and particular genes. Later, this research would fuel the creation of drugs the company could tailor to different genetic profiles. 23andMe would become a new kind of health-care business, sitting somewhere between a Big Pharma lab, a Big Tech company, and a trusted neighborhood doctor.

Some of this still sounds as far off now as it did during the Bush years. Improbably, though, 23andMe has rounded second base and is heading for third. Wojcicki did sell millions of people on DNA test kits—11 million and counting—and bring such tests to the mainstream, with some help from Oprah’s holiday gift guide. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans have turned over their genetic material to 23andMe or one of its competitors. Now that she’s got the data, Wojcicki is working on the drugs. Her company is collaborating on clinical trials for one compound (and nearing trials for another) that could be used for what’s known as immuno-oncology, treatments that attempt to harness the body’s complex immune system to beat cancer. 23andMe says it’s also exploring drugs with potential use in treatments for neurological, cardiovascular, and other conditions, though it declined to specify them. Last month the company bought Lemonaid Health, a telehealth and drug delivery startup that offers treatment and prescriptions for a select group of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and STDs.