23andMe-style sequencing project taps Facebook in pursuit of 20,000 participants

Researchers at the University of Michigan are trying to speed toward their goal of enrolling 20,000 people in a study by piggybacking onto Facebook's ($FB) vast social network. And the genotypic and phenotypic data gathering project is off to a brisk start, with more than 2,000 people signing up in the days after its public launch.

The Genes for Good project is reminiscent of the work done by 23andMe, with one notable exception: Participants get their DNA tested for free. Instead of paying money for the test, participants answer questionnaires about their health history. If the project hits its recruitment target, the researchers will have access to a sizable pool of genotypic and phenotypic data to interrogate in search of links between variants and diseases. Many researchers see value in such data, a fact shown by the deals Genentech and Pfizer ($PFE) struck to access 23andMe's similar but admittedly much larger resource.

Recognizing that scale is crucial to the success of the project, the Michigan researchers have turned to Facebook. Participants answer questions through an app on Facebook. And the researchers hope they will then post about what they are doing, sending details of the project rippling out across the vast network of people on Facebook. The potential to piggyback onto the social network to quickly and cheaply recruit large numbers of patients has attracted clinical trial sponsors in the past but results have been mixed.

Genes for Good occupies a different niche than these earlier, biopharma-driven projects and has made a fast start. Around 1,000 people signed up within one day of the project going public. And the 2,000 mark was cleared two days later. The early success of the project is likely to increase unease in some quarters, though. "Some people are going to freak out about this. DNA and Facebook are two words that most people do not want to hear in the same sentence," Union Graduate College-Mount Sinai School of Medicine Bioethics Program Assistant Professor Michelle Meyer told BuzzFeed News.

The project's organizers have tried to foresee and mitigate possible concerns. Posting on Twitter ($TWTR), Meyer--who is participating in the study--said the consent form is "not bad in terms of info disclosure." And the researchers are stressing that Facebook has no access to data submitted through the app.

- read BuzzFeed News' article
- here's Mic's coverage
- and Meyer's tweet