Sergey Brin donates DNA, dollars to Parkinson’s study

By Carol Eisenberg

March 13, 2009 at 8:24am

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who carries a gene mutation that predisposes him to Parkinson’s disease, is contributing his DNA and millions of dollars to research into the condition’s genetic basis.

The study will be conducted by 23andMe, the website co-founded by his wife, Anne Wojcicki, which already harnesses users’ DNA to help them understand health risks and other genetic traits.

The site hopes to recruit 10,000 people with Parkinson’s. By comparing their genetic information with that of healthy people already in 23andMe’s growing database, researchers hope to find genetic variations linked to the neurological condition.

Sergey Brin
Sergey Brin

Partners include the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which was started by the actor with the disease, and the nonprofit Parkinson’s Institute. About 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological disease which interferes with movement and speech.

Brin, 35, who Forbes ranks as the world’s 32nd richest person, told the New York Times that he would pay for most of the study’s costs, although he declined to say what that was.

“I kind of give myself 50-50 odds of getting Parkinson’s in 20 or so years, 25 years,” he said. “But I also give it a 50-50 shot of medicine catching up to be able to deal with it.”

Last fall, at Google’s Zeitgeist meeting, Brin revealed for the first time that his mother, Eugenia Brin, a former NASA computer engineer, had contracted Parkinson’s, and that he also carried the gene mutation that sharply increases his risk of developing the disease.

When a member of the audience asked whether it wouldn’t be better to be ignorant of such things, Brin appeared taken aback.

As a result of having that information, Brin said he was now in a position to encourage research about Parkinson’s and to take steps to lower his personal risk.

A profile in The Economist described his reaction as part and parcel of his approach to the world.

In effect, Brin said he regarded his mutation of LRRK2 as a bug in his personal code, and thus as no different from the bugs in computer code that Google’s engineers fix every day. By helping himself, he can therefore help others as well. By helping himself, he can therefore help others as well. He considers himself lucky.

The moment in some ways sums up Mr Brin’s approach to life. Like Mr. Page, he has a vision, as Google’s motto puts it, of making all the world’s information “universally accessible and useful.”

Brin’s faith in the transformative power of accessible information comes in part out of his family’s experience in the Soviet Union. His parents, Russian Jews, were barred from pursuing careers in physics and astronomy.

After his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 6, Brin followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by studying mathematics at the University of Maryland, double-majoring in computer science.

He befriended fellow whiz kid Larry Page when he enrolled at Stanford to get a Ph.D in computer science. The two crammed their dorm room with computers and applied Brin’s data-mining system to build a superior search engine.

The program became so popular at Stanford that they suspended their doctoral studies to start Google in a rented garage, owned coincidentally by Wojcicki’s sister.

23andMe also grew out of Eugenia Brin’s diagnosis, according to the Times. Wojcicki, a biotech analyst, met co-founder Linda Avey because Avey was running a genetic study about Parkinson’s disease. Together, they came up with the idea of a website which would let people analyze and compare their genetic makeup (and whose name refers to the 23 pairs of chromosomes every human being carries).

Google already has invested $3.9 million in 23andMe, which is also based in Mountain View, CA.

Wojcicki told the Times she hopes to use the Parkinson’s study as a basis for future research collaborations. “There’s a huge opportunity for us if we can make research more efficient,” she said.

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  • #1.   MURALIDHARA ACHARYA 03.14.2009

    Mr. Brin is doing a commendable job. Any way, I would like to give him piece of my mind. If he undertook this to include developing or under developed nations this would have made more sense.


    Muralidhara Acharya

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