What Do Your Genes Say About You? The Future of Personal Genomics

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July 23, 2008

What Do Your Genes Say About You? The Future of Personal Genomics

Genome_2_4 Want to know what your genes say about you? According to geneticists, your genes could be saying quite a lot! Your genetics may dictate, for example, what foods you like, what diseases you are prone to develop, how smart you are, and likely factor into nearly every aspect of your being. It’s no wonder that some people would like to take a peek at their personal genetic blueprint.

Three companies are now offering such services. Not only will they test your DNA at nearly one million separate locations where the human genome is known to vary from person to person, but they also help clients interpret what their individual map says about their past, present and future. However, genetics is still an imperfect science. Your genes could indicate you have a very high risk of developing arthritis down the road, for example, but in actuality you may never suffer from stiff joints. Even so, scientists have been mapping out genetic differences for some time now, and have made huge strides in interpreting DNA. Understandably, many individuals would like to know what they’re made of.

The company 23andMe announced its DNA testing service last month in San Diego. You might think such a comprehensive analysis would costs thousands, but the process is actually relatively affordable. For less than $1,000 customers are able to learn virtually everything science currently knows about their biological code. For those wary of needles, you’ll be comforted to know that the DNA is retrieved conveniently and painlessly from a home mail-in saliva test kit.

But not everyone wants to know what their DNA says about them. What if you found out you had a high propensity for developing a rare, incurable disease? Would you really want that kind of information weighing down on you? You don’t have to look at all of the information if you don’t want to, but who could resist asking such questions as: Do I have the genes associated with longevity? Do I possess genes linked to high intelligence? Do I have the “fat” gene, or the “skinny” gene?

Clients admit that looking into these traits can become almost an obsession. Clients have access to their own “Gene Journal”, which includes a visual bar chart that shows “good” genes in green and undesirable ones in red. For example, you can see in percentages what your chances of developing Alzheimer’s are. You may find that you are 45% less likely to develop diabetes than others, but 25% more likely to develop heart disease. All of these differences stem from the roughly 10 million tiny variations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs weaved into the 23 pairs of human chromosomes (hence the name “23andMe”) The company generates a list of their clients’ “genotypes” — AC’s, CC’s, CT’s etc, based on which SNPs are found on the clients collection of chromosome pairs.

It’s debatable whether knowing your likelihood of developing disease is a good thing or not. Many argue that knowing what risk factors you face allow you to more effectively plan preventative measures. Others say it could needlessly cause worry, especially since scientists are discovery new information daily, some of which contradicts previous finding. But perhaps the biggest argument against mapping out individuals genetic blueprint; isn’t that just the sort of thing an insurance company would like to find out? That thought scares some. What happens when genetic profiling goes mainstream? Could major insurance companies eventually figure out how to legally (or illegally) peek into potential clients profiles? For now the answer is definitely no, but who knows what could happen in the future, especially if companies like 23andMe start appealing to the masses? However, it is extremely likely that legislation will continue to prevent insurance companies from discriminating based on DNA. In the mean time, knowing what your risk factors are may act as it’s own form of prevention insurance. Either way you look at it, it’s a highly personal decision; do you want to know the secrets of self, or are some things are better left unanswered...

Posted by Rebecca Sato

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Links:

So far, these are the 3 major companies offering DNA testing services immediately or in the near future:

23andMe
Mountain View, Calif.
Available now for $999
Services: genotyping 580,000 SNPs using Illumina technology; Gene Journals reporting risk for 20 diseases and physical traits; tools for tracing ancestry and DNA similarity with family and friends; Genome Explorer to provide access to all data to allow customers to compare any published study with their own genotype; will provide referrals to genetic counselors
Online: www.23andme.com

deCODE Genetics
Reykjavik, Iceland
Available now for $985
Services: genotyping one million SNPs using Illumina technology; deCODEme will provide risk reports for about 20 diseases and physical traits; tools for tracing ancestry and DNA similarity with family and friends; genetic counselors available for consultations
Online: www.decodeme.com

Navigenics
Redwood Shores, Calif.
Available in 2008 for $2,500
Services: will genotype one million SNPs using Affymetrix technology; health Compass will provide risk reports for about a dozen diseases; results relayed by genetic counselor
Online: www.navigenics.com/

Related stories
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/17/us/17dna.html
http://www.wired.com/medtech/genetics/magazine/15-12/ff_genomics

Comments

A relative was recently diagnosed with cancer and the first thought was to have her children's dna tested to see if they were prone to this same cancer. The biggest concern they all had wasn't learning if they were prone or not. In fact they were most concerned that they would be discriminated against by their insurance companies. They've yet to have the test done and I doubt they will because of this. I think eventually the insurance lobbyists indeed will find a way to make it a standard practice to charge you according to your DNA profile - or refuse to insure you altogether.

Upirons, that is a really interesting dilemma your relative has. Personally, I don't think the American public would ever stand for insurance companies discriminating against people due to their DNA. EVERYONE has a predisposition to develop something, and everyone's DNA is going to show at least a few potentially negative markers. You could argue that those who know what their predispositions are should get better insurance rates, because they're the ones who can start implementing preventative measures early on, whereas those who haven't tested could easily die of a sudden heart attack that they never saw coming and therefore never made appropriate lifestyle changes. I don't agree with that argument either, but I'm just pointing out that there is more than one way to look at the issue. Again, I really can't imagine Americans allowing insurance agencies to discriminate on the basis of genes. Whether or not someone smokes is a choice, but you don't get to choose which genes you inherit and it would seem crazy to randomly pre-penalize people for something they may or may not ever develop.

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