Recruiting patients to participate in disease studies is one of the most time-consuming parts of medical research. For some illnesses, getting the necessary few thousand patients together can take more than 10 years. So the personal genomics company 23andMe turned heads in June when it announced that its researchers had analyzed DNA from more than 30,000 people and discovered two new genetic variations associated with Parkinson’s disease in only a year and a half.
Instead of gathering and testing patients in person, as in traditional studies, 23andMe researchers turned to online Parkinson’s support groups to subscribe 3,426 patients, free of charge, to their service, which uses a mailed-in spit sample to identify genetic traits and disease risk factors. They then pulled 29,624 healthy controls from 23andMe’s database of customers who had filled out online surveys about their medical history. When the scientists compared the two groups’ dna, they found two genetic variations that were slightly more common in Parkinson’s patients, indicating a correlation.
The variations 23andMe identified are just two small pieces of a larger puzzle, but if such web-based recruiting catches on, it could seriously accelerate disease research. “What 23andMe did in a matter of years would have taken several decades and tens of millions of dollars” if done conventionally, says Haydeh Payami, a neurodegenerative disease researcher at the New York State Department of Health.
Next on 23andMe’s agenda: applying the same approach to rare cancers, such as sarcoma and a group of blood cancers called myeloproliferative neoplasms, that are difficult to study but that might be ideally suited to this kind of analysis.