Replicated Chromosomes in a Dividing Cell

Obesity Research as a Marketing Tool for 23andMe

With much fanfare, 23andMe recently announced a massive study of the interaction between a person’s genetic profile and weight management. The company has recruited 100,000 customers with excess weight. The study will randomize those people to three different treatment strategies.

One of the treatment groups will follow a low-carb diet. Another will cut animal fat and eat more fiber. The third will make no changes in diet, but add exercise.

Marketing, Research, or a Bit of Both?

This research holds some tantalizing possibilities. Liana Del Gobbo is 23andMe’s lead scientist on this study. She says:

We’d like to better understand the genetic, demographic, psychosocial, and behavioral characteristics that predict weight loss success overall, and on different lifestyle interventions. This will help us begin to pave the way towards more personalized lifestyle recommendations.

Ultimately, we’d like to learn how to make traditional lifestyle interventions more scalable and cost-effective. This intervention will be an exciting first step.

In its press release, the company points out that it has a unique position. It has genetic data on large numbers of customers. With that data, supplied by its customers, 23andMe can do a study that no one else can.

Yes, indeed. On Amazon.com, 23andMe sold a record number of Health and Ancestry Kits for the Christmas season this year. And the sales linked to this study alone will yield nearly $17 million. On top of that, a successful study will yield valuable new marketing claims for the 23andMe Genetic Weight Report.

They can use those claims to compete. Habit is a genetic testing and nutrition startup that’s already attracted a $32 million investment from the Campbell Soup Company.

Research Transparency

But we have no answer to an important question. Will corporate interests shroud this research in secrecy? Or will it go through peer review and validation? The signals are a bit mixed.

This is an ongoing clinical trial of an FDA-regulated diagnostic device. The  protocol for the study should be published. But we can’t find it in the clinicaltrials.gov database. Perhaps it will show up. Likewise, the company has yet to publish the scientific basis for their genetic weight report in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, they’ve published a proprietary white paper on the company website.

Maybe more disclosures and work with independent scientists are coming. The publication of collaborative research on genetic loci associated with depression provides a reason for optimism.

Understanding the genetic basis for obesity is important. And pursuit of that understanding should be more than just a marketing tool. We hope that 23andMe will honor and strengthen standards for transparency and peer review as they pursue this research.

Click here and here for more on the 23andMe weight loss study. For more about the issue of clinical research transparency, click here.

Replicated Chromosomes in a Dividing Cell, photograph © ZEISS Microscopy / flickr

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January 8, 2018

One Response to “Obesity Research as a Marketing Tool for 23andMe”

  1. January 10, 2018 at 4:21 pm, Allen Browne said:

    Where there is money to be made, industry steps in. The trick is how to take advantage of the data to help the patients.

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