By Ron Winslow
The Wall Street Journal
The closely held Mountain View, Calif., company on Thursday said Richard Scheller, who retired in December as head of research and early development at Roche Holding AG, will become chief science officer next month and will lead a new therapeutics group that will seek to discover new drugs.
The hope is that mutations and other genetic information harbored in the database—along with links to health information customers have provided to 23andMe—will reveal mechanisms and potential drug targets for a range of rare and common diseases. The information is obtained from customers curious about their DNA who submit saliva to the company for genomic analysis.
The company sends customers their genetic data but says 80% of them agree that 23andMe owns the aggregated data with rights to use it for research. It says the database is the largest repository of human genetic data in the world.
About a dozen companies, including Roche’s Genentech unit and Pfizer Inc., already use the data under pacts with 23andMe, seeking drug-related clues about specific mutations or diseases. Indeed, Dr. Scheller said the last business development deal he signed at Roche was to gain access to the 23andMe data for Parkinson’s disease research.
Those partnerships will continue, said Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe’s chief executive officer. But unlike those collaborations, in which companies agree to pursue clearly defined projects, the new therapeutics group will have “the opportunity to look broadly through the database and not have a particular restriction to what we’re looking for,” Dr. Scheller said. “Then we’ll work on the very best and most convincing targets that come out of the search process.”
Dr. Scheller’s appointment is the latest in a string of moves 23andMe has made to revamp operations since late 2013, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rebuked the company for aggressively marketing the saliva kits as a medical test, while persistently failing to comply with FDA requests for information to support marketing authorization. It ordered the company to halt selling the kits for medical or diagnostic uses.
The company continues to sell the $99 kits for such nonmedical purposes as ancestry discovery. The FDA recently approved a version of the test that can check whether a healthy person carries a rare genetic mutation that could result in a child being born with a serious disorder.
Ms Wojcicki said the company recognized the episode as “an opportunity to transform” itself. It has taken steps to mend its relationship with the FDA and hired several senior executives, including a chief legal and regulatory officer and a chief medical officer.
Metabolic and immune system disorders, eye disease and cancer are among conditions the company will seek to address through searching the database. Among other things, it hopes to learn from what Ms. Wojcicki calls “escapers,” people who carry a potentially deleterious mutation but don’t have any disease symptoms.
Because they aren’t sick, such people don’t show up in the doctor’s office, but they can be found in the company’s database, Ms. Wojcicki said. Determining what traits seem to protect them from disease could reveal targets, for instance, to treat people with the mutation who do get sick.
It is a challenging task. A few years ago, Ms. Wojcicki said, the company thought it found a mutation that protected high risk people from getting Parkinson’s disease. But the target didn’t pan out in further analysis. Still, she regards the discovery as evidence of the database’s potential.
“There are lots of meaningful discoveries to be found,” she said.
Dr. Scheller’s connection to 23andMe dates to around its founding in 2006. He was head of research and development at Genentech when the company participated in 23andMe’s initial round of venture funding. In his posts at Genentech and Roche, he oversaw development of several drugs, including the breast cancer drugs Perjeta and Kadcycla and numerous molecules still in late stage development. He and Ms. Wojcicki stayed in touch.
They met for tea at his house on the Stanford University campus late last year as he was preparing to leave Roche, Dr. Scheller said. Both had thought the database would be a great resource for drug discovery, but until then, they hadn’t formally discussed it, Dr. Scheller said.
“Before the water was boiling, we basically had an agreement that this is something that would be terrific to do,” he said.