NIH taps 23andMe to address health research disparities in minorities

23andMe spit kit

Update: This story has been corrected to reflect that the grant will leverage the data of more than one million customers to create a sequencing panel, but not be put toward sequencing the genomes of one million customers.

The NIH awarded 23andMe a $1.7 million grant to improve the understanding of diseases in minority populations by developing an African American sequencing panel for use in health research.

The company, which markets home genetic spit tests, will leverage the data of more than one million customers who have agreed to participate in research. It will create a sequencing panel of African American genomes for use as a reference dataset in health research, according to a statement. The resource will be shared with health researchers worldwide with the goal of inspiring more health research on disease that affects minority populations.

It is estimated that the vast majority of genetics research has been done in people of European ancestry. Some estimates put that number as high as 90%, and a recent study has suggested that this tilt limits our ability to treat minority populations, 23andMe said in the statement.

"This project aims to help address health research disparities, specifically for African Americans," said Adam Auton, a senior scientist and statistical geneticist at 23andMe and the principal investigator of the project, in the statement. "The hope is that this work will help improve our understanding of disease-causing genetic variants in minority populations, and that this in turn could improve treatments among people with non-European ancestry that have historically been underrepresented in health studies."

This isn’t 23andMe’s first bid to step up diversity on genetic research. In April, the company picked up a $250,000 NIH grant to create an “analysis pipeline” that would be an alternative to the traditional genome-wide association study that identifies genetic variants associated with disease. The company expects the new pipeline to increase understanding of the genetic variants that are important for minority populations that are underrepresented in research.