23andMe and the Ticking Timebomb Within

Do you know there’s a ticking timebomb within you? Do you know the code to disarm the damage? Will you allow the bits of you to explode? Are you interested, at all, in trying to diffuse the inevitable?

Would you spend $999.00 USD to learn your genetic Predestiny on the chromosome level? If so, then 23andMe is the genetics service created to serve your wonderings:

After receiving your sample, lab professionals extract DNA from cells in your saliva. Your DNA is then chopped up into shorter strands and copied many times via a process called amplification. Next, your DNA is washed over a small microchip-like device that contains short strands of synthetic DNA. The synthetic DNA fragments latch onto the pieces of your DNA that are a complementary match.

Then a laser-scanning step reveals which strands of synthetic DNA are stuck to your DNA to determine your genotype. The chip used in our process is the Illumina HumanHap550+ BeadChip, which reads more than 550,000 SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) plus a 23andMe custom-designed set that analyzes more than 30,000 additional SNPs. What this means is that the laboratory process reads nearly 600,000 data points on your genome. Find out more about our genotyping process.

23andMe offers you DNA-specific insight in your genetic predisposition for acquiring diseases, your family ancestry and how you compare with the rest of the world on the genome level. Are those things you want to know or not?

If price is an issue, if someone else paid for your genetic testing, would you still want to know things that are hidden inside you but that are now discoverable for the right price? Is there any concern storing your genetic profile on a private internet server that you access by logging in and looking around to see your history and future presented in electronic form for analysis against the rest of the world?

What are the dangers and advantages of 23andMe? Will this sort of genetic testing be mandatory for future government support or for continuing insurance coverage or as an admissions standard for prep schools and universities?

Should this sort of human genome project ever be a privatized for-profit venture — Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin heads up the effort and Google invested in the company — or should our DNA and genetic secrets be released free-of-charge into a world database for disinterested inspection by anyone and everyone without having to first pay a fee for a look-see into the demise of our private tomorrows?

37 comments

  • I am adopted – If I was younger I might just go for this. I have no knowledge of my birth family, their medical histories and any disposition to certain diseases. However at 50 I kinda think it is a moot point now.
    So on a personal level this might work for me – it might also ( should I be very rich) be a present to have given my children say on their 18th Birthday – long gone for all of them too now. I was given a handwritten copy of my adoptive parents family tree – not quite my birthright – but almost.
    I wouldn’t want the details to go anywhere else – one file for me and one file for the company – I would not want it shared or compared – or held anywhere electronically. I consider this on a par with my medical records. (And yes I am opposing the centralisation of them in the UK.)
    The dangers come when the data is shared either by government departments or by commercial enterprises – and when something that we have no control over ( our DNA) is used to discriminate against us both socially, economically, educationally and in the health care sector.
    That is a very dangerous road – we are already aborting late term babies for “minor defects” such as cleft palette – what will be next – aborting them because they are going to have ginger hair and will get teased through school?
    However a part of me can see the vision of anonymous DNA data being collected and forming part of a world project – that would be fascinating and would enable us to map all kinds of trends. Maybe something the UN could do for future generations?
    One last comment – if this company has similar support and back to Google – then there is no way they would get their hands on my data !

  • Thanks for that great and touching comment, Nicola!
    I can see how that sort of test would help you know the past that your body understands but your mind is unable to comprehend.
    I can also see how this would be a valuable tool for an entire family to do together to create one, grand, picture of who you all are and where you will likely end up.
    Is it a good thing, I wonder, to see the youngest sister might be predestined for leukemia that she might fall victim to or to pass along to her children?
    If we find gene markers for Down Syndrome or Dwarfism or even Criminality — do we not allow those to reproduce and “burden society” with medical and technological and incarceration needs the state cannot bear?
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/05/30/diagnosing-down-syndrome/
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2007/01/05/pillow-angels-smothered-in-childhood/
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2006/12/11/embryo-eugenics-proactive-natural-selection/
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2006/12/18/infant-criminals-bad-seeds-and-guilty-ovum/
    We used to require blood tests to determine compatibility for creating children in a marriage — if your blood didn’t type well together, you were unable to wed because having sex would create dead children and the only reason to wed is to create children…
    Then medicine trumped blood and terrible matters like RH factor incompatibility were able to be mitigated with medical intervention during pregnancy to protect both mother and fetus.
    Now I think we’ll swing the other way — these sorts of “genetic tendency markers” will be a required routine of any doctor or dentist or bank visit or job hire — and if there are problems seen in your DNA you might not be allowed to marry and create children or you will be denied that 30-year mortgage because your genetic code suggests you’ll die in 10 years; you won’t get that promotion because your genetics suggest you’ll live to 120 and the burden of your extra benefits and pension will ultimately bankrupt the company.
    I agree — Google have their hands in deep in this genetic goo now — and while they aren’t the first company to offer this sort of testing, they may well become the standard bearer for the future.
    Can you imagine all the information Google has on our surfing and search patterns and then combining it with your genetic code if they were able…? Who is predestined to seek out porn on the internet? Who is more likely to want to search for bomb making materials online? Is there a trend towards identity theft or pedophilia online in certain chromosomal neighborhoods?

  • I think you have summed up the nightmare in one post!
    Shades of Stand on Zanzibar, 1984 and Brave New World.

  • I fear we live in “on-the-record” times for all of eternity now.
    Everything we say anywhere is being recorded and duplicated and stored for later access. AT&T started the bulk of the work:
    http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/11/analysis-spy-ru.html
    Our new passport system will include this sort of “tendency biometric data” that will indicate where were are allowed to go and what historic tribal values we own even though it may be unwittingly.

  • As it stands, I can barely stand pregnancy tests : I’d rather just know when the time is right for things like this. I firmly believe that everything is in G-d’s hands and that it’s not up to us to look into a crystal ball, scientific or otherwise, to tell us what may come.

    We know not the way the wind will blow, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her that is with child. We know not the work of God who ultimately, does all things

    No lesser a mind than King Solomon wrote the words that were translated into that. My understanding is that we have to work with what we have and not try to predict what may be dozens of years from now.

  • Hi Gordon!
    Ahhhh! Now we’re getting interesting!
    1. Why are pregnancy tests influencing your world? :mrgreen:
    2. We do know the way the wind will blow, do we not? If not, what is the purpose and intent of meteorology?
    3. We don’t know how bones grow in the womb? How then, is in-womb surgery possible if the realm is unknown? Here is an image of a spina bifida operation on a fetus (that has wrongly been used as anti-abortion propaganda):
    http://www.snopes.com/photos/medical/thehand.asp
    4. Are you saying you would not take the genetic test kit and use it even if it were offered for free?

  • P.S.
    Gordon — keep checking your BolesUniversity.com email for a message from Jenny.

  • Not everybody in the world handles the same information the same way. So where is the place for counselling in all this?
    I have a friend whose mother’s sister had breast cancer at 48. Friend is 25. She struggles every day with should-I-find-out. Not knowing has meant she is working to mitigate all other factors known to contribute to cancers such as dietary, environmental, lifestyle factors. But who is to say that if she finds she is going to get breast cancer, she will not automatically start herself on a route where she says: Sod it, who cares? Now let me go crazy while I can.
    Except for a few genetic and chromosomal disorders, our understanding of the contribution of genetic and environmental factors is quite sketchy.
    This reminds me of a lesson we learnt in our market research elective way back in the MBA. The professor, who is also a well-known marketing research guru in India, said that in her experience, brand managers who did not know the basics of research design accepted faulty research design, and then took the outcomes as cast-in-stone and millions of dollars were then ploughed into initiatives based on those outcomes.
    Genetic testing like one buys tomatoes in a supermarket is not dissimilar. The probability question is hard for many to fathom and unless the ‘science’ is more reliable, this sort of testing is open to all sorts of abuse perpetrated on and by the person tested.

  • Shefaly —
    Your comment reminds me of the family that had their stomaches removed to avoid dying of stomach cancer:
    http://cancer.about.com/b/2006/06/19/family-at-risk-for-stomach-cancer-has-stomach-removal-surgery.htm?rd=1
    I daresay that sort of familial surgery is a radical step to take — but one most of us would likely take if provided with that genetic disposition.
    There are reliable tests one can have performed for a cheap price today to indicate if you are predestined for Alzheimer’s. Most people are too fearful to take the test because they don not want to live under fear and foreboding and, they reason, if Alzheimer’s hits them, they will never know the difference. Is that selfish thinking or smart self-preservation against the unknowable inevitable?

  • A lot of what the great King Solomon wrote was not meant to be taken too literally. Here too he was writing about how even though we may be able to predict the future we should not rely on such predictions to make serious decisions about what we will do in the future. Yes, if it looks like rain or we get that funny feeling in the knee, perhaps an umbrella would be prudent.
    Even if it were free, I’d rather not know for sure that something could happen in 10 years. Even though right now there is a test that could tell me if I am a member of the priestly tribe of the Kohanim I’d rather not take the test – for one, it’s not yet taken too seriously by leading rabbis. Two, it would have such serious ramifications that I’d rather not know. In Jewish Law it’s better to let someone do something wrong without knowing it’s wrong than to tell them it’s wrong and maybe have them continue doing it anyhow.
    I have had experience with the tests of the pregnancy variety in my life. I’d rather keep it at that. :)
    Already got an e-mail from Jenny – and one from Kezia – two different topics. Incidentally, I had to ask Barnes and Noble to order me the Google book because they didn’t stock it on their shelves. :/

  • David they will be chipping us all soon so they know where we are and what we are doing. RFID chips are already here and in use – they just haven’t got around to implanting them yet.

  • I had not seen the story about removal of stomachs to prevent stomach cancer before – but there are an increasing amount of women in the UK who are having double mastectomies because they have the breast cancer gene and have lost mothers, cousins and aunts to the disease.

  • David:
    Some people have also had pancreas removed and chosen to take insulin because of a history of pancreatic cancer in their family:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/health/07canc.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
    Some women have also undergone preventative double mastectomy to deal with not getting breast cancer.
    “Is that selfish thinking or smart self-preservation against the unknowable inevitable?”
    I wish I could translate this for you but some things do not travel well across languages. You probably know that Amitabh Bachchan is a mega-star in India. He sang a song in one of his films when I was a child and there was a line in it:
    “Yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai lallu…”
    Rough translation: Is this life really a life? (The word ‘Lallu’ while used as a name in this case is also a generic adjective in Hindi which means ‘idiot’ or a person of low common sense or intelligence).
    My point: why die before we actually do? Accepting inevitability of death is part of life; letting that inevitability determine that the tone of every day of life will be morbid is missing the point of life.

  • Shefaly,
    Another great film that starred Amitabh hand the wonderful line from which the title of the film was taken.
    “Khabi kuchi, khabi gham”
    Sometimes we do have happiness in life. Other times, sadness. As someone in the film said, without the sad times we wouldn’t appreciate the happy as much.

  • Take the test, Gordon! Or give me a DNA swab so I can take the test for you and know the results! :grin:
    I’m surprised Thomson didn’t send you a copy of the book. Did you ask?

  • Nicola!
    Right! RFID is coming and the fact that it causes cancer where the chips are implanted shouldn’t concern us, right? :grin:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/08/AR2007090800997_pf.html
    Nancy Reagan was hammered in the press and by the medical community when she had breast cancer in one breast but chose to have a radical mastectomy on both breasts. She said she didn’t want to worry about having it spread and the medical community indicated they caught it in time and that she sent the wrong message that breast cancer meant the total devastation of both breasts even though they could’ve done a simple surgical procedure on the problem breast and saved them both. I think she had a bit of a time finding a doctor willing to perform the unnecessary radical mastectomy on a healthy breast.

  • Shefaly —
    “Life is Dream” by Calderon:

    And I too dream and behold,
    I dream I am bound with chains,
    And I dreamed that these present pains
    Were fortunate ways of old.
    What is life? a tale that is told;
    What is life? a frenzy extreme,
    A shadow of things that seem;
    And the greatest good is but small,
    That all life is a dream to all,
    And that dreams themselves are a dream.

    http://www.poetry-archive.com/c/from_life_is_a_dream.html

  • I didn’t even think to ask but I just did!
    The test is a couple hundred dollars and is definitely not worth knowing. Trust me.

  • Gordon —
    It’s always good to ask. You can’t get a “yes” without asking first. :grin:
    I understand about knowing and not knowing — though I’d always rather know than not know.

  • Thank you for the link on the RFID chips – something else to add to the armoury.
    Removal of both breasts is becoming an elective treatment for those with history of breast cancer in the family.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/womenfamily.html?in_article_id=389286&in_page_id=1799&in_a_source=
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3158472.stm
    More and more women, particularly with the faulty gene are electing to have this surgery. It is listed as one of the options open to you .
    http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/genetic/test_abnormal.jsp
    And here are the benefits …….
    http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/high_risk/preventive_options/benefits.jsp
    I wonder if Nancy Regan’s family had a history of breast cancer that was not revealed to the public?

  • Nicola —
    Yes, the RFID cancer story is one that numbs the mind and the mouth because we will certainly be picked sooner to have them track us inside our bodies.
    Nancy Reagan may have only had one breast radically removed instead of both. She had a 7mm lump discovered in her left breast during a routine exam — the smallest size detectable by manual manipulation — but she wanted it all gone and without reconstruction.
    Here’s a fascinating article on the “celebrity effect” of her decision:
    http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/279/10/762
    Nancy was very private about her life — so there may very well have been a richer reason for her to go radical.

  • Having just read this – I may just give it a go – I have battled all my life with my weight.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/healthmain.html?in_article_id=495058&in_page_id=1774

  • Amazing, Nicola! If you do it, let us know what happens. There’s no way everything we are isn’t set in our genetic code including weight, body type, eyesight, etc. It’s through modern medicine that we are able to heal those holes in our DNA to “right us” for the future.
    Many scientists say there’s no way we shouldn’t be living to 200 by now — we need to find a way to stop our decay — and perhaps these genome mappings and gene therapies will begin to provide us the lives our bodies deserve.

  • Nicola: If the weight issue is the deal maker for you, I am afraid you will be disappointed. Weight gain is vastly more complex than isolated genes, and plenty of genetic explanations are not to be found by mere DNA profiling. I should know. I spent 4 years researching obesity for my doctorate. Now anything nobody ever wanted to know about obesity is there in my brain and some of it made its way to the thesis too…
    The best bet still remains diet management (according to age and weight goals) and exercise remain the best options.

  • It is not a deal maker or breaker particularly for me personally – but it is becoming one in Society in the UK . *Fatties* are the new smokers, the new alcoholics in the way that they are perceived.
    I would love a bit of paper that said it was my genes – just to prove I had done all that I could .

  • Now this sounds like a positive for a gene data base
    “Scottish doctors are building a unique gene database that will match medicines to individual patients, boosting the chances of effective treatment while reducing side-effects. By examining the DNA of patients who suffer side-effects from a drug, or are responsive to it, they will pinpoint the genes responsible for the variations.”

  • Like Nicola I am also adopted but I would never have this done!
    For the simple reason that I strongly suspect our information will be made available to (for example) insurance companies and employers in the not too distant future. I want as little information about me commonly available.
    Unfortunately I am in Sweden at the moment and everything is centralised with one ID number per person that has all your information (medical, income, bank balance, tax, mortgage etc.) available under it to the appropriate authorities.
    //Mike

  • That is great news, Nicola. I hope this DNA investigation offers some opportunity for healing on a permanent basis.

  • urbanspaceman —
    Yes, you’re right! If information exists, and the government wants it, they’ll get it from the “secure servers” faster than we can sneeze. Once you’re captured in the system, the entirety of you is no longer privately operated.

  • Nicola:
    “.. – but it is becoming one in Society in the UK”
    That is precisely what I was researching, and comparing with the US to see where the trajectories go.
    I doubt however that in the absence of clear NICE guidelines, the results of such tests will be any help when it comes to accessing rationed healthcare. In fact the use of genetic data is governed by stringent agreements between private and public sector so the piece of paper will be no help should you, I hope you do not, need help from the medical establishment… :-(
    “Scottish doctors are building a unique gene database that will match medicines to individual patients, boosting the chances of effective treatment while reducing side-effects.”
    On this: At least 120 odd companies are working to make pharmacogenetic medicine a reality and it is very difficult to enforce. It requires at a clinical level a kind of granularity which evades us at the moment. Testing genetic therapy is hard enough – and of course, few if any things work, and funding has no relationship with promise of efficacy and all to do with the volume of patient lobby groups – so collect all they may, I am not hopeful this will come to any clinical reality in the next 2 decades or so.
    Thanks.

  • This is shows why I do not trust governments or anyone else with my data . From the BBC today.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7103566.stm

  • Shefaly thank you for your response and comments.
    I am lucky to live in an area where I am served very well by my local heath authority – they saved my life.
    However the *climate* is now swinging against those who are overweight and in certain areas it is affecting your right to health care – fertility treatment is one area.
    My health is pretty good for a 50 year old – I am shortish so do not carry the weight I have as well as some people. It only becomes a problem for me when it is a problem for others – or I am discriminated against because of it.

  • Nicola: Thanks.
    The NHS is truly a post code lottery. Having recently seen NHS in Scotland at close quarters, I think they run it much better. In England, my new local trust is good but then as you say it depends on the area one lives in. Even so some waiting times are ridiculous…
    There are many areas where body weight is being used as an unofficial filter for provisioning decisions.
    I write a blog on obesity for the last 1.5 years. I hope it is ok to mention it here: http://obesityheadlines.wordpress.com.
    I did recently discuss the fertility issue and the recent guidelines. In some cases, body weight does intervene with efficacy or indeed usefulness of treatment, but in others, bias and prejudice in clinical settings do play a key role. It is well documented but there is no systemic way of fighting such prejudice, genetics or no genetics..
    Thanks.

  • They’re coming to catalog you in Europe!

    DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – A private firm funded by Google Inc launched its Web-based DNA test in Europe on Tuesday, hoping to build on a successful start in the United States, where the $999 service went on sale in November.
    Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki, co-founders of 23andMe, will showcase their service at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which starts on January 23.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSL2247155620080122?feedType=RSS&feedName=technologyNews&rpc=22&sp=true

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