Pfizer Inc. is teaming up with DNA testing company 23andMe to study the possible genetic underpinnings of inflammatory bowel disease, a hard-to-treat ailment that affects an estimated 1.4 million Americans.
Under the agreement, Silicon Valley-based 23andMe will map the DNA of 10,000 patients who have forms of the disease, which include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Patients will submit saliva samples using 23andMe’s at-home collection kit and then fill out online questionnaires about their disease and symptoms.
The companies hope to identify genetic similarities among patients with the disease, which could eventually guide development of new targeted drugs.
“Our research objective is to understand the genetic associations found between IBD patients’ DNA and their disease, and apply this understanding to Pfizer’s drug development efforts,” 23andMe said in a statement.
Current drug options for the bowel disease include steroids and immune-suppressing drugs, which reduce inflammation but also can cause serious side effects.
The cause of inflammatory bowel disease is unknown, though many scientists suspect genetics play a role. Other scientists believe the problems are triggered by a virus or bacteria.
Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed. 23andMe, founded by Anne Wojcicki, who is separated from her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, has penned two similar deals with drugmakers Genentech and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
The agreement brings Google-backed 23andMe one step further into the medical mainstream, after a widely publicized dispute with federal health regulators last year.
In November, the Food and Drug Administration ordered 23andMe to stop marketing its health-related genetic tests, warning that erroneous results could cause customers to seek unnecessary or ineffective medical care. The agency said that even after numerous meetings and email exchanges with the company, government regulators still had no assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated its technology.
23andMe’s test kit, launched more than five years ago, claimed to tell customers if they were at risk for more than 250 diseases and health conditions. 23andMe continues to provide ancestry-related information to customers who use its kits, as well as raw genetic data without interpretation. Customers order the tests online.
Still, the FDA sanctions haven’t stopped the company from partnering with other parts of the federal government.
Two weeks ago the National Institutes of Health signed a $1.4 million agreement with 23andMe to access the company’s DNA database to research rare diseases.
23andMe is privately held. Both Google and its co-founder, Brin, have invested millions in it over the years.