23andMe, a personal genomics company, announced last week that it had been successfully awarded a patent for a genetic variant which appears to protect against a high-risk mutation for Parkinson's disease.
That high-risk mutation is called G2019S and about half of all carriers go on to develop Parkinson's Disease. 23andMe, which compiles genetic data from participants, discovered a large cohort of individuals who carried the G2019S mutation but did not have Parkinson's Disease. In examining this cohort, the company discovered the potentially protective nature of the gene SGK1.
Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe, said that identifying healthy individuals with rare genetic variants was 'akin to finding a needle in a haystack and can only be identified with large databases like 23andMe'.
She added: 'These individuals are extremely valuable for us to study as they provide insights into why some people do not develop disease despite having high-risk genetic factors. This could lead to new drug targets or diagnostics'.
But the patenting of a variant in the SGK1 gene is not, as 23andMe acknowledged in an announcement on its blog, without controversy.
Dr Stuart Hogarth, a research fellow at King's College London, has written an open letter to the company where he probes 23andMe's assertion that their patent 'will not prevent individuals from getting access to information or prevent researchers from researching the target'.
The company's announcement on its blog also provoked concern from 23andMe users about how 23andMe would enforce the patent, and why feedback was not sought from customers before the application was made.
One customer wrote: 'I had assumed that 23andMe was against patenting genes and felt in total cahoots all along with you guys. If I'd known you might go that route with my data, I'm not sure I would have answered any surveys'.
In response Anne Wojciki emphasised the core values of 23andMe, its 'mission to improve lives' and the commercial reality of developing new drugs and treatment.
'Patents give organizations researching and developing new drugs confidence that their significant investments will be commercially viable', she said. 'Often the only way a company will even think about pursuing a drug lead is if they have assurance that they can recoup their investment. Having patent protection over the entire line of discovery gives a company confidence to invest in this resource-intensive process'.
23andMe's research was conducted in collaboration with Scripps Medical Institute and funded by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.