New word of the week: 23andMe aims to valorize your spit

The following is a guest post by Alan Cassels, a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria.  Alan was founder of Media Doctor Canada, a project very similar to our, but a project that is unfortunately on the shelf for now.


Life might be looking up for 23andMe, the world’s largest dataset of personal DNA, especially when the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies start sniffing around looking for business.

A recent post in FierceBiotech, an online blog focusing on the biotech industry, pointed out how 23andMe was raising venture capital from the pharmaceutical and the biotech industry, hoping to sometime land in the black.

Huh?   This company, which managed to convince more than 150,000 people with  $100 burning a hole in their pockets to send them their money and their saliva in exchange for their genetic horoscope, hasn’t made any profit yet.

What gives?

Surely providing personal genetic profiles (so people can learn deep dark secrets of their ancestral past or their lifetime likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes), is worth a lot?  Apparently not, but it will be after the DNA in all that spit is repackaged and held up as bait to the drug companies.

One shouldn’t shout Kaching! yet.  The operative word here is “valorization,” a Marxist term meaning “the use or application of something (an object, process or activity) so that it makes money, or generates value. (see Wikipedia)   In other words, the thing in question proves its worth when it yields profits—and has been thus “valorized.”

Hence 23andMe’s humongous dataset is heading for valorization when it gets married to pharma’s research and marketing muscle. The goal being, in 23andMe’s words to, “empower people to take control of their health destinies rather than becoming slaves to the healthcare system.”

Yet maybe instead of being slaves to the healthcare system we, the unwashed masses desperately craving a gaze into our own DNA-crystal ball, will find ourselves a new master.  As 23andMe starts ‘valorizing’ all that spit they’ve collected, and the vast mine of DNA information is quarried for even the tiniest of nuggets, it’ll be noodled and warped into very attractive patentable products and sold back to us.

Signals of this future arrived last May when 23andME apparently got a patent for the discovery of a gene that might protect a person from getting Parkinson’s disease. We’re talking mega-valorization here.  Now with a target for drug development and a potential drug in the pipeline, plus the patent for the Parkinson’s test, 23andMe will profit from both the test and the drug.  Don’t question the ethics of this kind of thing—because ethics have nothing to do with it. It’s all about business and cold hard cash.   And your destiny.

Now you can say it, twice:  Kaching! Kaching!

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Comments (2)

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Addi Faerber

December 17, 2012 at 10:50 am

I’m more concerned with the source of genetic material within their database. if they’re the new go-to database for drug development, the biases in the incoming genetic information will skew their database’s representativeness. If few poor people have an extra $100 to get their genes tested, then they’ll be underrepresented in the data. Sure, we’ll find genes to protect against Parkinsons in a database of the genes of elite white Americans, but what about malarial protection? It ain’t gonna be useful unless it’s representative.