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Master Of The Online Universe

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The co-founder of Google dreams of one day going into space, but for the moment, he has much more down-to-earth ambitions - digitising every book ever published and helping to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.

Sergey Brin started to change the world for the first time in 1995, when he was 21 years old. Fourteen years later, he looks about to do it all over again. When the Stamford researcher working on his doctorate got together with fellow student Larry Page, Google was born. The internet search engine is now so powerful that it is a household name on every continent and, arguably, the most powerful media organisation in the world.

Last week, Brin, who now lives in a big house on the southern peninsula of San Francisco, announced he is investing unspecified millions of the profits in a research programme into Parkinson's disease. This has been welcomed by the scientific community as having the potential to revolutionise medical research.

It is not just money that Brin is bringing to the Parkinson's research project - it's a way of thinking about the world which has been pioneered by Google. Rather than being controlled by doctors in laboratories, and therefore limited by numbers and reliant on the time and input of a few researchers, it is being conducted through the internet. Current plans are to analyse the DNA of 10,000 Parkinson's sufferers, who will then fill out web-based questionnaires about their lives and symptoms, becoming an internet community of their own.

The aim is to discover which lifestyle and genetic factors contribute to the disease. Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, a Massachusetts-based research centre, describes the approach as "a Googley thing to do". Catherine Paddock, a doctor writing for the American website Medical News Today, considers the approach may bring about "a social revolution in how research is done and who owns it".

Just a few of days after the plan was announced, it is inspiring fierce debate. Scepticism has been provoked by the fact that the company carrying out the Parkinson's research, 23andMe (named after the 23 chromosome pairs every human has), is co-owned and co-managed by Sergey Brin's wife, Anne Wojcicki. Although Brin is largely financing the research, there is the potential for the company to make a profit by selling the results to drugs companies.

Writing on her blog, Wojcicki explains their aim: "Our approach is new because it leverages the web to bring people together from all over the globe who are willing to share infrmation about their own health experiences [phenotype], which is then combined with their genetic profile [genotype]." Rival genetic research firms claim the approach can result in poor-quality data because it is reliant on amateurs reporting on themselves.

But 23andMe is not his only family connection to the enterprise. Last year, the Google founder discovered that the make up of his DNA - he has a genetic mutation - means he has a 50/50 chance of developing Parkinson's.

His mother also had the mutation, and developed Parkinson's, and he has already announced that he plans to have his four-month-old son tested to see whether he has inherited the trait. Brin is facing the discovery with the confidence of a self-made billionaire, but tempered by the down-to-earth attitude reported by colleagues throughout his career. "I give it a 50/50 shot of medicine catching up to be able to deal with it," he said last week. Is Brin effectively going to be defeat Parkinson's with hard cash?

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Created by Kevin 42 weeks 17 hours ago – Made popular 42 weeks 17 hours ago
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