Also, the practical challenge was huge. For the database to be really useful, 23andMe had to sell millions of spit kits. And to revolutionize science in the way that Wojcicki and Avey envisioned, the company had to collect all kinds of data beyond genetics, since correlations can only be made if you know about a person’s genotype together with his or her manifest health. 23andMe had to know a user’s family history, drug allergies, and personal habits, and whether the subject takes vitamins and how often he or she exercises. In the founders’ ideal future, all data sets would be compatible so that 23andMe (or a company like it) could integrate into its algorithms every bit of the world’s quantifiable data: pollution centers and weather patterns, commuting times and the daily schedule of your coffeemaker, your life on Tinder or Grindr, the number of cigarette sales and yoga studios in your neighborhood, proximity to a Whole Foods and what you bought there last Tuesday.
For this reason, the 23andMe user interface is very “sticky.” It has a social component that allows you to connect with other people who share your genes. Before seeing a health report, you are asked to fill out a lengthy medical history. And then, every time you log in, there are more questions to answer. “Lisa Miller,” my page quizzed me recently, “do you cry easily?”
Eugenia Brin’s Parkinson’s was vexing Wojcicki even before she founded her company or had children of her own. In 2004, she urged Sergey to attend a meeting in Menlo Park at which the biotech company Perlegen was presenting the results of a Parkinson’s study. The following year, researchers discovered the connection between Parkinson’s and the LRRK2 variation: In 2006 the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the variant, while very rare, was more common among Ashkenazi Jews. Anne called around, trying to get an LRRK2 test for Sergey. “I was told uniformly that there’s no reason to test him. ‘It’s very unlikely that he has it,’ people said, ‘and even if he does, what would you do?’ ” Wojcicki pauses at the memory. “I found their responses so obnoxious. It was like, really? It’s information. I want to know.” When the scientists at 23andMe were deciding what their kit should test for, they made sure the LRRK2 mutation was on their chip.
It was Anne, in fact, who alerted Eugenia and Sergey to the presence of the LRRK2 variant in their genomes after spending an afternoon at the kitchen table browsing through the family’s 23andMe reports. She saw the double mutation in Eugenia’s data and immediately called her office to make sure she was reading it right. “I was like, ‘Sergey’s mom has two copies,’ and they were like, ‘No, that doesn’t really exist.’ ” The results confirmed, Anne called Sergey. Then they called his mother.
Brin has written that discovering the LRRK2 variant within his own genome was transformative. “I know early in my life something I am substantially predisposed to,” he wrote on his blog in 2008. “I now have the opportunity to adjust my life to reduce those odds (e.g., there is evidence that exercise may keep Parkinson’s at bay). I also have the opportunity to perform and support research into this disease long before it may affect me.” Brin declined to speak for this story, but a recent article in Vanity Fair suggested that Brin might have stepped out on Wojcicki because the specter of Parkinson’s in his future triggered an emotional crisis. Wojcicki wouldn’t talk about the split but affectionately uses the married “we” in reference to her family, and when she talks about who’s picking up the kids and what the chef is preparing for dinner, Sergey is implicitly present. And so is the prospect of Parkinson’s.
Was there a moment, I ask Wojcicki, when you and Sergey decided to devote yourselves and your resources more aggressively to Parkinson’s research? “There was never a plan,” Anne remembers. “I’m action oriented. It was more like, ‘We should probably meet Michael J. Fox more. We should probably give him a lot of money.’ ” Brin has said that if he knew that a billion dollars would cure Parkinson’s, he would write the check in an instant, and since his 23andMe results came in, he and his wife have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Michael J. Fox Foundation that involves so much mutual admiration, and so many dollars passing back and forth, that the lines between the two organizations can seem sometimes to blur. Wojcicki and Brin have donated more than $150 million to the foundation, and the foundation has established 23andMe as a “research partner,” working with it on Parkinson’s studies and donating half a million dollars to its Parkinson’s efforts.