What 23andMe's FDA Approval Means for Medical Marijuana

By: Jordan Medley

Personal genetics company 23andMe is back in the business of direct-to-consumer health testing kits, after a two-year hiatus of its core business at the hands of the FDA. This makes 23andMe the first genomics company to win FDA approval for taking its products straight to the consumer, without the need for a physician’s approval. Two weeks ago, the company announced that it had raised $115 million in late-stage funding, putting it at a $1.1 billion valuation.

23andMe has re-launched the health component of its genetics test, enabling users to submit their saliva and learn about their family history, their genetic traits (i.e. eye-color), wellness, and whether or not they can pass on certain genetic diseases to their children. In a groundbreaking addition to their business model, the company is also taking steps towards developing their own pharmaceutical drugs. In hiring former Genentech executive Richard Scheller to lead its drug development team, 23andMe will leverage its 1 million-person database to identify potential treatments for genetic diseases. Through partnerships with pharmaceutical giants like Genentech and Pfizer, 23andMe is also creating more specialized gene databases of people with specific ailments such as Parkinson’s disease and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

The groundbreaking business model now implemented at 23andMe seems to be an early prototype of an “industry standard” that will be sure to drive the future of personalized medicine. As our understanding of medicinal marijuana begins to mature, there are parallels for the cannabis market to seize on this new format of analytics-based medicine and drug development. The amount of research that 23andMe is investing into putting genetic testing, diagnostics, and drug development under one roof, paired with the serious investor appetite to fund it, is a lucid indicator that a highly personalized and on-demand healthcare industry is imminent.

In the near future, medical marijuana patients will be provided with sophisticated wearable devices capable of live data aggregation, easily transmittable to researchers and physicians. Shortly after marijuana is de-schedualized from its Schedule 1 Drug listing, an epileptic patient will be able to adjust the dosage of their medical marijuana based on neurological activity that they tested on an EEG linked to their mobile device and sent wirelessly to their medical cannabis clinic for analysis.  The clinic will produce an updated recommendation, have a physician approve it via a secure cloud system, and ship it out for next day delivery. Other mobile applications will aggregate a patient’s health needs, insurance data, cannabis state compliance, local dispensaries, and clinics in real time.

The FDA's approval of 23andMe has heralded a new path for tech and health companies to follow. For the medical cannabis industry it shows that the FDA is willing to listen to new approaches to medicine that focus on data-based decision making. If the cannabis industry is to be taken seriously in its push to change the FDA's stance on cannabis, its approach will need to reflect hard science and not just rely on changing public sentiment. To stay relevant and ahead of the curve, medical marijuana companies will need to adjust to a reality where technology empowers patients to make sophisticated and highly personalized decisions at every step of the process.