Home DNA tests reveal more than just you

A Bay Area company is leading the way in home DNA testing, but its popularity is raising some concerns about your privacy.
November 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Our DNA is what makes us, us. It is a map of our family history and the key to our risk for certain diseases. One Bay Area company is leading the way in home DNA testing, but its popularity is raising some concerns about your privacy, even if you aren't the one taking test.

Our DNA makes us unique. It's mapped out even before we are born, creating a code that determines everything from our risk of disease to how drugs will affect us and even what we pass on to our children.

Mountain View-based 23andMe is a pioneer in the field of DNA mapping and home DNA tests.

"When we first launched the product in 2007 it was $999 for 12 health reports," said 23andMe's Emily Drabant, Ph.D.

Now it's just $99 for more than 250 health reports all about you.

We wanted to see just what you get. So we ordered a test. A simple saliva kit arrived. You register online, fill up the plastic tube, and ship it off to the 23andMe. In a couple more weeks, you get your results.

The 23andMe analysis spells out everything from your risk of heart disease and Alzheimer's to understanding your ethnic origins. It can even tell you how much Neanderthal you have in your ancestry.

"It's a lot of information, and I think from our philosophy is that we want to give it all to you. This is your DNA, it's about your body, we want to give you all the info that we have," said Drabant.

But is having too much information about your future health a concern?

Stanford geneticist Uta Franke, Ph.D., explored that question. She works for 23andMe. Her research focused on people whose DNA test results showed a high risk of breast cancer.

"We decided that nobody was completely and emotionally freaked out. Nobody was severely affected," said Franke.

Still there are those who are concerned about the long-term implications of home DNA tests. Barbara Koenig, Ph.D., is a genetic ethicist at UC San Francisco. She says, "There are a lot of issues in translating those tests eventually into either the clinic, or into public health, or into personal information that individuals can use."

Koenig is working on a project to identify some of the potential problems that may come up as a result of all this newly collected genetic information.

"I think that people probably should be concerned with direct-to-consumer genetic information with how widely they disclose it. For example, you probably don't want to put your whole profile up on your Facebook page," said Koenig.

But some people are doing just that. Venture Beat writer Christina Farr recently wrote about the growing number of people sharing their genetic information online.

"It's not just you, but it's also your family members that might be implicated," said Farr. "What if your future offspring, or your brother, or your sister were discriminated against as a result of you posting this information on Facebook? How fair is that?"

23andMe says it providing DNA information empowers its consumers and deciding how to share it should be up to them.

"You may want to share some of your data, you may want to share your ancestry with your friends on Facebook, you may want to share your health reports with your physicians, so you are able to share or not share your information as you like," said Drabant.

23andMe dropped its pricing to encourage more people to take the test. They believe having more people in their database will lead to medical advances for a variety of diseases including Parkinson's.

Written and Produced by Ken Miguel


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