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23andMe lands $1.4 million grant from NIH to detect genetic roots for disease

WASHINGTON D.C. (Reuters) - Home genetics startup 23andMe has secured a $1.4 million two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build survey tools and expand its gene database.

With these funds from NIH, an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the company intends to use its stores of genetic data for various research projects. External researchers will be able to access information on thousands of diseases and traits for more than 400,000 people.

The grant "enables researchers from around the world to make genetic discoveries," Anne Wojcicki, chief executive officer of 23andMe, said in a statement.

23andMe, which is backed by Google Inc , has not always played well with the federal government. Late last year, it hit a major regulatory snag when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expressed concerns about the "public health consequences of inaccurate results" from 23andMe's $99 DNA test.

The agency took issue with 23andMe's claim that its service could deliver insights about people's genetic predispositions toward "254 diseases and conditions."

23andMe agreed to stop marketing and selling its test. But it has continued to grow its genetic database by offering raw health and ancestral information, such as a person's ethnic heritage, in exchange for a DNA sample. The company said it has grown to 700,000 customers since 2006.

This grant does not mark a new direction for 23andMe since the FDA's crackdown, the startup's spokeswoman Catherine Afarian said, as the company has used its data for research in the past.

However, as it awaits FDA approval, the company appears increasingly focused on how it can use its existing data-set to contribute to medical research, while maintaining patient privacy.

Earlier this week, 23andMe disclosed plans to contribute data to a study on new genetic risks for Parkinson's disease spearheaded by researchers at the National Institute on Aging. 23andMe was listed among more than 50 worldwide institutions in contributing to the research.

With its fresh funding, 23andMe said it plans to develop web-based surveys to explore new genetic associations, enhance its survey tools to collect a broader data-set, utilize whole-genome sequencing data, and provide researchers with de-identified data from its existing genetic database.

(Reporting by Christina Farr; Editing by Diane Craft)

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