Ex-Genentech exec heads 23andMe’s drug discovery drive

Genetic testing company 23andMe has announced a foray into the drug discovery sector, and enlisted the aid of former Genentech executive vice president of R&D Richard Scheller to spearhead the initiative.

The new therapeutics group will tap into the data generated by 23andMe’s main business unit, which provides low-cost personal genome sequencing services to the public and, since starting operations, has a database of sequencing information on more than 800,000 people.

23andMe’s chief executive Anne Wojcicki said the company intends to put “significant resources into translating genetic information into the discovery and development of new therapies”. Around 80 per cent of the people in its database have consented to their genetic data being used for medical research purposes.

The Google-backed company’s in-house efforts come in the wake of collaborations with pharmaceutical developers, notably Roche unit Genentech and Pfizer. The alliance with Genentech is concentrating on Parkinson’s disease, while 23andMe is working with Pfizer on inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), as well as other targets.

Meanwhile, 23andMe has already started to diversify beyond its core business with the launch of a diagnostic kit for the rare genetic disorder Bloom syndrome, which was approved by the US FDA last month.

Hiring 61-year-old Scheller as its chief science officer and head of therapeutics will give 23andMe additional drug discovery and development expertise on the management team.

Scheller retired from Genentech in December after 14 years at the company. Most recently he led the Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED) unit but also served as its chief scientific officer ahead of the Roche buyout.

There had been rumours Scheller would join another Google-backed health venture – AbbVie-partnered Calico – which is led by former Genentech executives Art Levinson and Hal Barron.

Starting an in-house discovery unit will allow 23andMe to trawl through its database to find drug targets outside its relationships with pharma companies, although it is likely to be many years before medicines based on the findings become available.

One of Scheller’s first jobs will be to create the R&D team at 23andMe, an effort which will get underway next month.

“I believe that human genetics has a very important role to play in finding new treatments for disease,” said Scheller.

“I am excited about the potential for what may be possible through 23andMe’s database – it is unlike any other.”

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