23andMe reports jump in requests for data in wake of Pfizer depression study

The Pfizer ($PFE) study that identified 15 genome sites linked to depression in 23andMe’s database has sparked a surge in demands to access the personal genetics pioneer’s repository. In the two weeks after publication of the paper, 23andMe fielded nearly 20 requests to access the depression data, almost as many as it received for the whole database in the fall of 2013, Fast Company reports.

Academic requests to access 23andMe’s mix of phenotypic and single nucleotide polymorphism data have ticked up over the past few years, according to the company, before surging in the wake of the Pfizer depression study. In the fall of 2013, 23andMe had 25 applications from academics. By the same period of the following year, the number had grown to 45. 23andMe is yet to disclose figures for 2015 or 2016, but the number for the past two weeks suggest the upward trend is continuing.

Joyce Tung, who joined 23andMe in 2007 and works as director of research, told Fast Company her team initially struggled to persuade academics the data were a quality research tool. Now, Tung claims the struggle is to keep up with academic demands to access the data. The turnaround claim, while unverifiable, fits with the evolution in perceptions of 23andMe that has taken place as the data have been used more and more research by academics and the likes of Pfizer and Genentech.

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23andMe still has some way to go before it convinces everyone of the value of its data, though. Some of the most persistent doubts relate to the quality of self-reported phenotypic data, which 23andMe gathers by pushing surveys to customers. These data are essential to 23andMe’s ability to make novel connections between DNA and diseases. But some people remain skeptical about whether users will answer honestly to questions about weight, alcohol consumption and other touchy subjects.

If the depression study turns out to be the success it was initially seen as, it would suggest the survey data on this disease are good enough to be useful. Whether the data for other conditions that were, or are, seen as sensitive subjects are as good will only become apparent as researchers explore the repository more. For its part, 23andMe is aware the survey data could be a weak spot of its operation and is trialing ways to improve quality.

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