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23andMe: DNA test goes mainstream

We are finally reaping the fruits of the Human Genome Project – in the form of affordable personalized genetic information – or simply said “retail DNA test service.”

And 23andMe seems to be in the frontline. It has just been named Best Invention of 2008 by Time magazine. The company’s name comes from the fact that we all have 23 pairs of chromosomes and that by knowing more about what’s in those 23 pairs, we see our genes “in a whole new light.”

So why go for personalized genetic testing? Well, the answer goes in two direction: genealogy and personalized medicine.

Genealogy

Want to know more about your ancestry? Want to reconstruct your family tree? Or more closer to home, want to confirm your paternity? DNA tests can provide you with answers. In an earlier post, I’ve written something on paternity test kits.

Medicine

23andme can now test for over 90 traits which reveal a person’s predisposition to certain diseases. There are other services around. However, 23andme made the headlines by lowering their prices down to $399. Because of their prices “genetics just got personal” the company’s motto goes. Another plus is the fact that the test is non-invasive. Everything is tested on the saliva.

Why is personal genetics important?

Research studies are pointing to the fact that a person’s genetic make up can determine not only his/her risks for certain diseases, it has also an influence on a person’s response to certain drugs and treatments. Personal DNA information is therefore very important in the so-called personalized medicine.

Caveat

For every new development, there are cautionary tales attached to it. For retail DNA test, it’s all about privacy. One main concern comes from the fact that a cofounder of 23andme is no other than Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google boss Sergey Brin. The fact that Google in parallel also launched GoogleHealth this year, a personalized online health information platform, makes some people wary, an issue already raised by a Nature article last year.

Other concerns come from health experts who feel people are not yet ready for such a technology because data that is derived from the tests are incomplete and uncertain. This may lead to problems of interpretation by lay people, a case of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

So what so you think? Is it worth this new test worth the money? How about a DNA test gift certificate for Christmas?


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