An Interview With Paul Cannon

We’re re-posting an interview that the Michael J. Fox Foundation did with our very own Paul Cannon, PhD, 23andMe’s Parkinson’s Research Community manager. April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month and this is a nice way to kick it off. paul_bw

Genetic testing company 23andMe made headlines recently with announcements first of a deal with pharmaceutical company Genentech and then of its own new Therapeutics Group.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has a long-standing relationship with 23andMe, helping recruit members for its Parkinson’s Community study and collaborating on research projects such as our LRRK2 Cohort Consortium.

Paul Cannon, PhD, who leads the 23andMe Parkinson’s Community, spoke with us about the company’s recent news and what it means for Parkinson’s disease (PD) drug development.

MJFF: What can you tell us about the 23andMe partnership with Genentech?

Paul Cannon: The deal with Genentech is a collaboration to whole genome sequence approximately 3,000 individuals with Parkinson’s or with a first-degree relative with PD. (The ratio is yet to be determined.) It’s a unique opportunity to learn more about the genetics of people with Parkinson’s disease and hopefully identify novel targets and biological pathways.

MJFF: How can genomic sequencing lead to new targets and treatments?

PC: It’s obviously the start of a long process, but one of the principle aims is to discover new therapeutic targets for Parkinson’s disease and specifically for disease-modifying therapies. There are a number of interesting therapies in development, but we need more shots on goal.

Through whole genome sequencing, we’ll look for genetic variants such as small deletions or insertions that are difficult to detect with our present mapping-based approach. It’s a more thorough interrogation of the genome made feasible by the decreased cost of whole genome sequencing and the analysis methods that have come along hand-in-hand.

MJFF: What is the difference between genomic sequencing and what you get from the 23andMe spit test?

PC: In whole genome sequencing you’re interrogating the majority of a person’s genome [complete DNA sequence]: every position of the approximately 3 billion base pairs that we have in our genome. The single nucleotide polymorphism [SNP pronounced SNIP] genotyping that 23andMe traditionally uses currently interrogates around 650,000 markers on the genome. Those are the mileposts, where sequencing looks at every section of the road.

MJFF: How can people with Parkinson’s disease get involved?

PC: For this study, we’ll be recruiting from the existing 23andMe Parkinson’s Community. We’re defining the genetic and clinical profiles that will give us the highest chance of success, and those individuals will be invited from the existing database.
That said, we encourage those not yet in the 23andMe Parkinson’s Community to join us. There will definitely be future projects; this won’t be our only effort.


MJFF: Speaking of other efforts, 23andMe recently launched its own Therapeutics Group. What can you tell us about the aims there?

PC: It’s very exciting to have the opportunity to work with an in-house team that is focused on development of therapeutics. We’ve obviously worked with commercial partners on drug discovery, and we’ll continue to do so. I’m hoping to work with them on potential projects for Parkinson’s research, but that’s still to be determined.
I can’t speak for them, but they’ll mine interesting data, presumably, and look for opportunities that pop out across the broad spectrum of diseases represented in 23andMe. They’re using human genetics to drive therapeutic discovery and to improve development of drugs by matching patients with the right drugs through the use of genetics.

MJFF: Thanks for your time, Paul. Anything else you want our audience to know?

PC: My pleasure. As a last note, I’d just say that we continue to look to work with partners across the Parkinson’s disease research community. There are opportunities for other collaborations and projects, and we’ll work together to continue to push forward Parkinson’s research, ultimately for a cure.
Learn more about the 23andMe Parkinson’s Community.