DNA testing

I received an email from DNA testing and analysis company 23andMe yesterday. I had ordered their DNA testing kit last December, and received the results of the test in January of this year.

At the time, 23andMe was only able to show ancestral information based on the results of the tests. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prevented 23andMe from sharing health-related information like your susceptibility for a certain disease and ability to serve as a carrier of that disease based on variations in specific genes.

However, the FDA recently changed its stance to support 23andMe’s provision of health information to its customers. And this is why I received an email from 23andMe yesterday morning. Basically, the email shared that as a result of the change in the FDA’s stance I’m now able to see 60 health-related reports in my 23andMe dashboard.

The messaging is still very tentative. 23andMe states that it’s not a diagnostic tool, and it therefore refrains from giving you specific probabilities for your likelihood to develop certain diseases. Instead, it simply says whether you’re likely or unlikely to experience the condition.

The service is also opt-in. You choose which reports to view, and can therefore choose to not reveal information about specific conditions that you don’t want to know about.

I chose to see the results of each of the reports. Among other things, I learned that I’m likely to be lactose intolerant, unlikely to blush after drinking alcohol, and likely to have more fast twitch muscle fibers which make me a better sprinter than marathoner. I could have already guessed each of these traits from knowing myself, but it felt good to see my predictions confirmed through the test.

I was also fortunate to discover that I don’t carry any of the variant genes which 23andMe knows to be associated with a wide range of diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. I may still carry other variants associated with these diseases that 23andMe hasn’t yet accounted for.

I’m glad the FDA took a tentative step to support 23andMe’s goal of informing people about their health. I recognize that the link between specific genes and conditions isn’t perfect, but I believe that the best way to establish more accurate associations is to analyze as much data as possible. And giving more health-related information to people is a great way to motivate them to take the test and contribute their data. This effect overcomes the downside of giving people potentially incorrect information, which can be mitigated with qualifying statements like “likely” and “unlikely”.

As the number of conditions reported in the test increases, and more people start to use the test, we’ll gain more confidence about the causal links between different genes, their combinations, and the expression of specific conditions. Eventually, we’ll be able to drop the “likely” ‘s and the “unlikely” ‘s.