Genetic testing is cool, but knowing your health risks is cooler

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

As a little experiment, my mom got DNA kits for my twin brother and I for Christmas one year. I got one from 23andMe and my brother one from AncestryDNA. We wanted to see how different the results of the two were. Unsurprisingly, the two tests reported very similar things (who would have guessed?), but some percentages were slightly different or regions were classified differently. Kind of cool?

I know a lot of people are on the fence or against sending their DNA off to some company where they will do who knows what with that information. I mean, if these companies want to sell the fact that I am 99.8 percent European, I hope I get some good targeted ads. I also don’t plan on committing any crimes that authorities would need to match my DNA to, so I should be safe on that front.

I will say I am still glad that privacy is a concern with these companies. 23AndMe and Ancestry both have privacy statements that detail what happens with your information, which is interesting if you give it a read. With 23andMe, your sample is kept for future testing until the user deletes their account or asks for it to be discarded. At Ancestry, future testing will only be done if the user opts into their research program.

At this point, I’ll focus on 23andMe since it’s the service I used. 23andMe offers a variety of different kits; the main two are Ancestry + Traits and Health + Ancestry. The main difference is Health + Ancestry also gives the user a report on their genetic risk for 13 common diseases and carrier status for many congenital conditions like sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. I only did Ancestry + Traits, so I don’t have access to those reports.

But is it worth it to pay $125 to learn about these things? Or rather, should I have to pay $125 to do so? 23andMe holds my genetic information which could potentially tell me I have some deadly disease that will kill me tomorrow — or it might tell me I should have no worries about genetic disease. That’s the gamble I’m playing by not paying for this information.

While that is my choice, it really rubs me the wrong way that a company like 23andMe makes it cost so much to find out this information. The $125 upgrade most likely isn’t to recover the cost of genotyping my DNA; they run specials where it can cost only $49. But I suppose that’s just the story of companies in America. Doesn’t make me feel any better, though.

Another thing that bugs me is that it most likely doesn’t take much effort to look for the health issues over the traits that are provided in the base version of the 23andMe kit. 23andMe identifies your traits or genetic health risks through a process called genotyping. Here, scientists cut up the DNA and copy it many times. This DNA is put on a slide and “sticks” to a DNA “probe” that shows which genetic variation your DNA matches.

This process relies on knowing which section of the DNA corresponds to which preference or health risk, and the probes are interchangeable. Instead of looking for the section of your DNA that shows you probably have thick hair, a similar amount of effort could go into looking for a gene like APOE-e4, a risk gene that shows an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimers. Having 23andMe guess that I am probably right-handed is cool, but knowing if I’m going to die remembering my family would be even cooler.

Overall, it’s really cool to get an overview of your genetic profile, but I still wish these companies would have better practices, especially when individuals’ health is concerned.