Online gene testing company 23andMe this week published its first genetic research study into Parkinson's Disease. The study was funded by the participants (many of whom are customers of 23andMe), the company itself, and Google-founder Sergei Brin, who is married to 23andMe's CEO and founder, Anne Wojcicki. Wojcicki is also personally subsidising the failing company and is a co-author on the paper (1).
23andMe's study shows that two new genes it has discovered, plus all known existing genes linked to the disease, are not much better than random selection at predicting who will get Parkinson's Disease.
Google's electronic medical record service Google Health has also been a business failure and was wound up this week.
According to the new research, predictive computer models including all known genes can only account for 6%-7% of the variance of the disease (2). This means that 93-94% of the explanation for differences in people's likelihood of developing Parkinson's Disease is missing. Further, most of the missing explanation for these differences in risk is not genetic.
"Most diseases in most people are not predictable from people's genes," said Dr Helen Wallace "23andMe should start being more honest with its customers and admit most gene tests that it sells online are meaningless. Both its investors and its customers need to know that genetic predictions will always have fundamental limitations. These findings show that 23andMe's product can only ever get a little bit less useless as more and more research is done."
23andMe's rival company, DeCode Genetics (based in Iceland) went bankrupt in 2009, although it continues to operate as a private company (3). A recent study presented at the European Society of Human Genetics concluded that both companies sell inaccurate predictions of disease risks to their customers (4).
23andMe's paper includes a new estimate that the heritability of Parkinson's Disease is 23% (suggesting that 77% of the variance will never be explained by genes, but that missing genes yet to be discovered account for a further 16%). Even if this (rather high) estimate is correct, it is much less than the calculated heritability of type 1 diabetes, a disease for which scientists have already shown genetic tests will have poor predictive value (5). The authors of the paper predict that even if all the genes they think might exist were found there would be an upper bound on the predictive value which is insufficient to make genetic screening for Parkinson's Disease risk useful in the general population (6). In short, this means its tests will never be useful to its customers. In addition, only 17 of 42 previously reported links between genes and Parkinson's Disease were replicated in the paper, highlighting ongoing statistical problems with this type of study.
GeneWatch has previously criticised 23andMe and other companies for wrongly implying that genetic differences play a major role in determining who develops Parkinson's Disease and other common diseases, and ignoring environmental factors (7). Although environmental risks - including smoking, diets and pollution - are sometimes also small, they can be reduced, unlike a person's genes which can't be changed.
"The big difference between genetic and environmental factors is that reduced exposure to unhealthy products or pollution can make a massive difference to the number of cases of disease" said Dr Wallace. "However, there are lots of vested interests that prefer researchers to be focused on the supposed risk of people's genes".
The idea that genetic screening would allow scientists to predict who would develop common diseases such as cancer was originally developed by the eugenicists who went to work for the tobacco industry in the 1950s. The false tobacco industry claims were endorsed by leading geneticists in the run up to the Human Genome Project in order to obtain funding for the project (8). The food, nuclear and chemical industries also poured money into genetic research (9). They sought to blame genes, rather than their own products or pollution, for cancer, hypertension, obesity and diabetes (10). The pharmaceutical industry expected to massively expand the drug market by selling medicines to healthy people told that they are at high genetic risk.
"Google should have studied the history of misleading claims about genetics and disease before setting up this company" said Dr Wallace. "Maybe next time they will sponsor a more useful study into the role of pesticides in Parkinson's Disease".
Identifying genes that play a role in common diseases can help scientists to understand the biology of a disease, but this does not mean that tests of these genes are useful to predict who will get a disease or to decide who should change their lifestyle or take medication. Gene tests are nevertheless useful to diagnose rare genetic disorders and rare familial forms of common disorders in high-risk families.
For further information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace, Office: 01298-24300; Mobile: 07903-311584.
Notes for editors
(1) The findings, funding and competing interests are reported in the paper: Do et al. (2011) Web-based genome-wide association study identifies two novel loci and a substantial genetic component for Parkinson's Disease. PLoS Genetics, 7(6), e1002141. On: http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pgen.1002141
(2) Sergei Brin himself has a rare gene linked with a rare familial (i.e. largely inherited) form of Parkinson's Disease which occurs mainly in Jewish families. However, most cases of Parkinson's disease are not familial.
(4) Direct-To-Consumer Genetic Tests Neither Accurate in Their Predictions nor Beneficial to Individuals, Study Suggests. 31st May 2011. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110530190344.htm
(5) Clayton, DG (2009) Prediction and Interaction in Complex Disease Genetics: Experience in Type 1 Diabetes. PLoS Genetics, 5(7): e1000540. On: http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pgen.1000540 "Many authors have recently commented on the modest predictive power of the common disease susceptability loci currently emerging. However, here it is suggested that, for most diseases, this would remain the case even if all relevant loci (including rare variants) were ultimately discovered."
(6) They report an AUC for their own model of 0.55 to 0.6 and an "upper bound on AUC for a genetic risk prediction model of 0.83 to 0.88" (based on finding future genes to explain their calculated heritability). An AUC of 1 implies perfect predictions, an AUC of 0.5 is no better than random guessing. It has been suggested elsewhere that an AUC of 0.75 is needed before testing people with symptoms and an AUC of 0.99 for screening unsymptomatic people in the general population, because of the large numbers of false positives and false negatives that occur with a lower AUC (i.e. people told they are at high risk when they are not, or told they are at low risk when they are not).
(7) GeneWatch UK (2009) Is 'early health' good health? On: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/Data_mining_brief_fin_3.doc
(8) Wallace HM (2009) Big tobacco and the human genome: driving the scientific bandwagon? Genomics Society and Policy, 5 (1), 80-133. On: http://www.hss.ed.ac.uk/genomics/documents/Vol5No1.pdf . The tobacco industry also founded the science of genetics and behaviour by claiming that likelihood of smoking is also determined by genetics: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.02940.x/full . Again, the genes that explain smoking behaviour (or indeed, any behaviour) have largely failed to materialise. The idea that such genes should exist is still based on the method of calculating 'heritability' devised by the eugenicist Ronald Fisher in 1918. Fisher went on to work for the tobacco industry in the 1950s.
(9) British Nuclear Fuels funded the first biobank (linking health information with DNA samples) in Europe, near Sellafield: Talks must start soon over future of Cumbria DNA bank. Whitehaven News, 6th December 2010. http://www.whitehavennews.co.uk/talks-must-start-soon-over-future-of-cumbria-dna-bank-1.787643?referrerPath=home/2.2837
(10) Gene Watch UK (2010) History of the Human Genome. On: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/HGPhistory_2.pdf