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The Google of Spit

Click to expand 23 and Me

Eugenia Brin took Anne’s spit test in 2007, and the results revealed that she carries not one but two copies of a rare mutation in a gene called LRRK2, which is strongly associated with Parkinson’s in a small number of cases. Because Eugenia carries only the mutant version of LRRK2, she has only flawed copies to give to her sons; both carry one mutant version, putting each at a significantly higher-than-average risk for Parkinson’s. Sergey’s kids—one, a toddler, the other, 5—have a 50-50 chance of getting the gene, though their LRRK2 status has never been made public.

Sergey’s success has been good for his mother; formerly a computer scientist at NASA, Eugenia is now retired and lives with her husband in a house behind a tall hedge in Los Altos Hills in a neighborhood five miles from the Googleplex. Like Sergey and Anne, and like many of the other data geeks and tech wizards I met traveling up and down El Camino Real earlier this year, stopping in Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Menlo Park, Eugenia is a rationalist, the kind who might receive a test result not with panic or resignation but relief and something like empowerment. “There are things you can do,” she says.

But Eugenia Brin also grew up in what she calls “another world,” and experience has shown her how sickness or circumstance can shorten the lives and ambitions of even the most brilliant people. She sometimes feels anguish at the prospect that her sons might suffer. “I have a very strong hope” that they don’t develop Parkinson’s, she says, her accent still thick. “It’s a hope against hope, but a very strong one.”

For this reason, Eugenia regards the brazen confidence with which her American-raised children and their friends approach all problems with a mixture of fondness and bemusement. Sergey and his peers have changed everything about the world—research, shopping, sex, surveillance—and have been rewarded beyond anybody’s wildest dreams for doing so. It only makes sense that they might regard any challenge as surmountable, so long as they figure out the right tools, the right people, and the right approach to the question—even if that question is how to push back death or disease.

When I meet her on a Friday afternoon in January at the 23andMe offices, Anne Wojcicki has had a tough few months. In August, she and Brin announced that they were living separately after Brin’s affair with a Google underling became public gossip. Then, on November 22, Wojcicki received the FDA’s warning. The letter was irascible in tone, and it made head­lines. Many readers saw a culture clash: a ­tradition-bound government agency affronted by Silicon Valley arrogance, Google nepotism, and 23andMe’s critique of traditional medicine. The company “rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” says Michael Nova, chief medical officer at Pathway Genomics, one of 23andMe’s competitors in a fast-growing field. Wojcicki got wind of the forthcoming warning while at a three-day corporate retreat: “I felt slapped in the face from out of left field,” she says. After receiving the letter, 23andMe stopped offering health reports to new customers, though it still provides ancestry information to them, and sales have dropped significantly.

At 40, Wojcicki is a no-makeup person, the kind who wears sneakers and ripped jeans to work, and her conversational manner is casual, too. No is a word she takes as a challenge, she says. She may have been naïve in her dealings with the FDA, but now she is devoting every ounce of the company’s resources to satisfying the agency’s requests: “We’re playing in the big boys’ world,” she tells me. On the day of my visit, as we are talking in a small conference room, a knock comes at the door and an assistant with a purple streak in her hair pokes her head in. Wojcicki breaks off: “I just have to sign some papers.”

There’s a letter to the FDA, and supporting documents, and previous correspondence, and duplicates. “Here’s a blue pen,” the assistant says.

“Blue,” answers Wojcicki, putting down her black one. She scribbles. The pages have to go to Maryland by FedEx tonight; there’s a conference call on Monday, with 23andMe asking for a second chance, essentially, to prove to the FDA that its spit test can meet its approval. That it has taken 23andMe almost eight years to focus on this obviously crucial task has drawn a fair amount of comment, but the breakdown between the company and the FDA illustrates a profound divergence in their respective ways of thinking about consumer health as much as it does mismanagement within 23andMe. Now that she is in triage mode, Wojcicki seems to be channeling a former self, one that used to work long days and nights on Wall Street. Over the summer, she says, she was enjoying the therapeutic effects of regular meditation. Since the fall, “the guy I meditate with keeps emailing me, and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, I don’t have time. I’m drinking coffee and eating bacon and swearing a lot.’ ”