She's Driving Genetic Sequencing Fresh From the Womb
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everybody is different, and Joyce Tung knows our treatment options should reflect that.
By Molly Fosco
This OZY original series brings to you Medical Breakthroughs – and the people behind them – that could change how doctors treat us, find fixes to today’s diseases and make our lives truly better.
Two exhausted but joyful parents welcome their tiny daughter to the world. The nurse whisks her away to get cleaned up, swaddles her in a warm blanket and sequences her genes. The new parents will soon know their baby’s risk for certain diseases, the foods that will optimize her nutritional needs and the allergies she’s likely to develop — minutes after her birth. In the not-too-distant future, genetic testing is likely to be so simple and cost-effective that many people will have their genome sequenced fresh from the womb, giving future generations more information about their bodies from day one than ever before.
As the vice president of research for personal genomics company 23andMe, Joyce Tung is helming the work that will one day make this a reality. She wants to make it possible for us to better understand our disease risks, to have personalized medical treatments and nutrition recommendations. “We want the ability to use real data and real science to make decisions about what’s best for us,” says Tung, 41.
The company’s “science for everyone” motto has led to rapid growth. Since 23andMe’s launch in 2006, more than 5 million people have used the testing kit. In 2017, 23andMe raised $250 million in growth financing and plans to hire 200 more people this year. Many know 23andMe as an at-home DNA testing kit for accessing ancestry information, but the research team is also making rapid advancements in genetic drug therapies. As Tung leads the charge to revolutionize the future of medicine, the company is battling concerns about consumer privacy that have dogged all of Silicon Valley — but carry higher stakes when it comes to the building blocks of our humanity.
The FDA approved 10 new genetic-risk tests from the company, including tests for late-onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
23andMe’s Mountain View, California, headquarters is just a 15-minute drive from Tung’s hometown of Saratoga. In fact, she’s lived in the Bay Area her whole life, earning an undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Stanford University and a Ph.D. in genetics at the University of California, San Francisco. On weekends, she and her husband take advantage of the California outdoor life, going on beach trips or bike rides with their 6- and 8-year-old kids.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Tung has always been close with her family. Her father encouraged her aptitude for science from a young age, though it came at the expense of another dream: writing. “You know, it’s really hard being a writer,” her father once told her. “Only the top writers go on to be successful.” Tung laughs at the memory, belatedly realizing that was his way of nudging her toward the hard sciences.
She has no regrets about her path. Tung first became interested in gene therapy while taking a biotech summer class in college; she was struck by its potential impact on health. “I’ve always been a nerd,” she admits. After grad school in 2007, she spotted a flyer advertising a job opening at 23andMe. CEO Anne Wojcicki and her co-founders had launched just the previous year. Tung started out as one of 23andMe’s human geneticists and was promoted to vice president of research in 2015. The one big difference since a decade ago: “I’m more comfortable speaking my mind,” Tung says, which is part of what makes her the right person to lead a team of 70 researchers. That and “a higher tolerance for other people’s nonsense,” she says, compared to other scientists at the company.
The excitement around recent drug therapy developments at the 23andMe offices is palpable. It’s been a bumpy road to get here. In 2013 the federal Food and Drug Administration slapped the company down for failing to provide evidence that its DNA testing product was accurate, removing it from the shelves. It took 15 months to receive FDA clearance, once the company proved 99 percent accuracy and 90 percent user comprehension.
While waiting in limbo, 23andMe expanded efforts into therapeutics research by teaming up with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in 2015, and today has a partnership with Genentech. Tung’s research team mines data from millions of users in the 23andMe database and transfers it to Genentech’s wet lab, where biological matter can be tested to better understand the biological mechanisms of disease and accelerate drug discovery. In 2017 the FDA approved 10 new genetic-risk tests from the company, including tests for late-onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
But outside the office, some are more skeptical. In May investigators reportedly used genealogy database GEDmatch to assist in identifying the Golden State Killer, raising red flags for privacy advocates. They claim that allowing law enforcement to access our genetic data represents government overreach, especially if customers don’t realize what they’re agreeing to. U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) and others in Congress are pushing genetic testing companies to safeguard consumers and address any potential breaches of personal data before they occur. “What I don’t want to see is another Equifax situation where millions of Americans have to deal with close, personal information being stolen,” Loebsack says.
Tung points out the company has never given customer information to law enforcement officials, employers or insurance companies. She says new technology always comes with concerns. For example, years ago “people thought at-home pregnancy tests were horrible.”
Will genetic testing one day be as commonplace as a pregnancy test? Carrie Northover, director of research services for 23andMe, who’s worked closely with Tung for five years, says Tung’s integrity will get her team to that lofty goal. “Joyce believes that behind every data point is a human being,” says Northover.
While a typical day for Tung is more often filled with meetings than lab work these days, she’s incredibly excited about her team’s therapeutics research, confident it will lead to the development of drug remedies for a multitude of diseases and conditions. “This is the best group of scientists I’ve ever worked with,” Tung says. In order to meet their aspirations to revolutionize health care, they’d better be.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the amount of time it took 23andMe to get FDA clearance.