The Risks and Benefits of 23andMe DNA Analysis
For Genetic Testing, the Future Is Already Here
Who Owns Your Data?
Thanks to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 23andme was out of the genetic testing business as of December 2013—not that they were all that practical to begin with. Unfortunately for consumers, as of October 2015, now they're back in business. Don't be too quick to sign up.
Prior to December 2013, 23andme touted new age promises of Direct to Consumer genetic testing. Eager users like me at the time were provided with personalized information on
- risks for 120 health conditions
- carrier status for 49 rare diseases, and
- standing on 57 traits.
(The reports sound more useful than they really were, however.)
Amazingly, users paid $99 for
- surveys that benefit the medical research community—companies that are paying 23andme big bucks for access to your data
- uninterpretable raw genetic data (why?)
- ancestry information and
- risk. Plenty of it.
Colorful Survey Topics and Your Private Information
There's No Going Back
If you're not feeling exposed yet, you should be. In addition to the ancestry benefits that 23andme touts, consumers of DNA testing should understand possible medical, legal, and personal risks of getting such testing. They should understand that once certain information is provided, it can Never Be Taken Back. This is the proverbial horse that's been let out of the barn. There's no going back on this information.
No matter how curious you are, the benefits that 23andme provides should pale in comparison to its risks. Yes, welcome to the brave new world of
- spit in a test tube
- pay $199 plus shipping (they raised their rates)
- answer a bunch of intrusive personal questions about your health and lifestyle (known medical conditions, pesticide exposure, sexuality, family background, drug use, etc.)
- then turn over your medical and personal data so big companies like Pfizer and Genetech can use it for their own financial gain. (Yes, folks, this is where Big Pharma steps in.)
My recommendation: Think very carefully before you do this.
I went in with an open mind, enthusiastic to discover more. However, I have emerged with deep concerns about privacy, the ability to withdraw from medical research, and who really owns one's data.— FlourishAnyway
Do You Really Want To Provide DNA for Ancestry Purposes?
FDA and 23andme: A Rocky History
In November 2013, the Food and Drug Administration ordered 23andme to stop selling over-the-counter genetic tests to consumers.3 The FDA sought to ensure that the company “analytically or clinically validated” the genetic data it provides to consumers. However, 23andme claimed it provides data and information, not medical advice.
23andme then sold consumers only raw genetic data analysis and ancestry reports, not the health interpretations that many consumers found so compelling. In October 2015, the FDA reinstated the company's permission to offer personal genetic testing. The company raised its price to $199 and reduced the number of health reports.
Direct To Consumer Genetic Testing Becomes Widely Accessible
The possibility of learning about one's personal genetic unknowns has intrigued the public since 2008, when 23andme's Direct To Consumer (DTC) genetic test was named Time Magazine's Invention of the Year.1
At the time, however, the company's price tag for personal DNA analysis was $999, placing the service out of reach for many. (For those willing to pay attention, there's a lesson in there about being an "early adopter.")
The Google-backed company has dropped its price several times since then in an effort to attract more customers. In December 2012, the fee was permanently reduced to $99, plus shipping ($9.95 in the United States)—permanently, I guess, until the rate increase to $199 in October 2015.2
At these lower price points, many people find themselves at a decision point: "Should I get at-home genetic testing?" I was one of them.
I signed up before the December 2013 FDA involvement. I went in with an open mind, enthusiastic to discover more. However, I have emerged with deep concerns about privacy, the ability to withdraw from medical research, and who really owns one's data. Following is my opinion, based on my experience.
Brokering Your Private and Genetic Information for Profit
We do not sell, lease, or rent your individual-level Personal Information without your explicit consent.— personal communication, 23andme
What Are You Trading Away For That Ancestry Information?Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Cautionary Tale for Anyone Interested In Genetic Testing
Scientists know her as HeLa. It's likely you've never heard of her -- a poor African American tobacco farmer from Virginia. HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, were important in researching cancer, viruses and the effects of the atom bomb. Her cells also led to advancements including in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and they've made other people very rich. Read about bioethics and legal battles involved when medical science take what is not theirs.
Your DNA Can Make Others Very Rich
Registration Was So Easy
Signing up was so easy, but that's often the thing about mistakes—they're easy to make and tough to undo. As someone who was curious about my health risks and carrier status, I decided to take the chance and enroll.
I registered online with 23andme and provided the required personally identifying information. This included my name, address, email address, and credit card information for payment of the service. The option to be tested anonymously does not exist. Don't think I didn't want that option.
The company subsequently mailed me a "spit kit" to collect a small amount of saliva. They had to do it twice because I didn't understand how to properly use it the first time around.
I subsequently returned the sample to 23andme's contracted laboratory for processing. (To promote privacy with the third party testing lab, the consumer uses a registration number instead of his or her name.) Then, after 6-8 weeks, I received the information I had been waiting for.
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Full Of Possibilities: Patents, Profits, and Your Genetic Data
Learn your percentage of Neanderthal ancestry.
You could discover uncomfortable information about family heritage or biological relationships (e.g., paternity, you're adopted).
Learn the countries where your genome may have come from.
Some of the surveys are very personally intrusive.
Find people in the 23andme community with similar profiles and interests.
Once you've completed surveys you can never opt out. 23andme retains your data for "internal purposes."
Attempt to contact your DNA relatives near and far. (Many don't respond.)
There is a possibility of exposing individual-level information.
Potentially assist medical research and indirectly benefit from discoveries.
Your data could be made public or disclosed to insurance companies.
Possibly manage risk through better lifestyle choices.
It may be more difficult to get life, disability, or long term care insurance. (GINA only protects against genetic discrimination in employment.)
Prepare for the possibility of serious diseases/facilitate conversations with your healthcare provider(s).
Oversharing of relatives' information. Your participation could expose relatives to potential risks that they aren't aware of or don't consent to.
In the event of corporate bankruptcy, consumers' genetic data would likely be considered a corporate asset and sold. That is what happened when deCODE, a prior competitor of 23andme, went bankrupt in 2009. Pharmaceutical giant Amgen purchased the company in December 2012 for $415M, in part for its large data bank.
You may learn about your own health risks or carrier status and by extension the potential risks and carrier status of your relatives.
Now They Know So Much About You
Why Is A Spit Sample So Valuable?
Personal genotyping consists of genetic analyses conducted on a small sample of a person's DNA. Although the company now provides only ancestry information. 23andme is the largest company in the Direct To Consumer genetic testing market.
Saliva is used because our spit is a genetic window to who we are. Saliva samples contain DNA cells for analyzing single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced "snips"). SNPs are patterns of DNA cells that contain small changes, or copying errors.4 These errors occur when cells reproduce. As a result, SNPs contribute to both observable and unobservable variations in health, physical appearance, and other aspects of what makes each person unique.
SNPs are inherited from one's parents. Therefore, they can be used as an index of genetic similarity. The more closely related you are to someone, the more likely you are to share SNPs. For example, you share more SNPs with a sibling than a third cousin.5
When you turn over access to your DNA, combine it with personally identifiable information (e.g., name), then provide survey data (e.g., questionnaires on sexuality, personality, drug use, lifestyle), you hand over the keys to not only your own identity but that of your relatives. Why? Thanks to publicly available records, you have provided information about not just yourself but also your relatives. And there's no going back.
Who knows how this information will be used in the future?
Curious about genetic testing but concerned about the its potential impacts on you? This article describes how the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) relates to your employment. It also details past abuses of genetic information in the workplace that led up to this law's passage.
More than 10 million SNPs exist across the human genome, and prior to the FDA's involvement 23andme tested for about one million of these coding variations.6 This coverage of only a portion of the genome was one of the major criticisms of 23andme even before the FDA became involved.
In contrast, competitor companies such as Gene by Gene Ltd. offer consumers an analysis of their entire genome (called "whole genome sequencing"). However, such comes at the hefty price tag of $7,395 or more and requires the involvement of a personal physician.7
Family Tree: What Will You Dig Up?
Would you consider getting direct-to-consumer DNA testing?
What Personal Information Is Linked To Your Genetic Data?
Nothing Is More Personal Than Genetic Analysis
Like hundreds of thousands of other people, I took the testing before the FDA put a halt to 23andme's personal health analytics. The U.S.Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intervened in late 2013 because of concerns that 23andme eliminated the physician as consultant or middleman by offering testing services directly to consumers.
During the entire process, rather than relying on a personal physician to request testing, deliver results, and answer questions I communicated directly with 23andme. Diagnoses were never involved—just potential risk factors and carrier statuses. Imagine, however, the personal impact of discovering that your results include Parkinson's or another serious illness. That physician as middleman sounds more necessary than ever.
The Gate Has Been Unlocked
Regardless of your consent status, we may also include your data in aggregate data that we disclose to third-party research partners ... .— 23andme Privacy Statement
You're Putting Yourself At Personal Risk
Do you care about this information so much that you could risk not being able to get life insurance or long term care insurance? That could happen to you and perhaps your relatives who did not consent to having their DNA tested if an insurance company gains access to your data.
Is genealogy information so important to you that you could risk a possible data breach? Regardless of what 23andme says about their security and privacy protocols, think about hackers and the value of all that data in one place.
If data systems can be breached at the IRS, Target, Home Depot, Anthem, AOL, Heartland, Ebay, JPMorganChase, and other large organizations, what makes 23andme and their corporate partners immune? If you think you're not at risk, you're fooling yourself.
No Longer Available: Risk Assessment for Health Condidtions
I received the full "benefit" of 23andme services prior to the December 2013 FDA involvement, when they were supposedly unimpeded by government intervention. I was left with a big "So what?" Today's consumers who grasp at the even more watered down health reports should consider that carefully.
The so-called health information was of varying usefulness. Some conditions tested only one or two genes associated with a disease or condition known to involve multiple genes. (What's the real value in that?) Other results were based on findings of questionable validity (e.g., preliminary research studies involving less than 100 people).
Still other reports were marginally interesting but of no practical value: hair curl and earwax type. Finally, there were other results that seemed to be issued based on what I had reported to 23andMe already in a survey. They were reporting back to me what I had reported to them. Duh!
Now Just Try To Undo It
What's In Those Surveys?
23andMe survey topics include a variety of topics. Examples include:
- personality measures
- commonly used medications
- sexual orientation survey
- questions about tobacco and caffeine usage
- pesticide exposure and
- which toe is the longest.
Although 23andMe indicates that 90% or more of its consumers do participate in their survey research, users can opt out of surveys they consider overly intrusive or decline to participate in surveys altogether.
A Word To the Wise
I became alarmed with 23andMe in the Spring of 2015 when I attempted to confirm with the Customer Care department that they had my status as OPTING OUT of research participation. The company's recent parternships with 12 big pharmaceutical companies had triggered concern about privacy, security, who owned my data, and how it would be used.
I had completed some but not all of their exhaustive battery of surveys and had not logged on for a very long time. In response to my clearly worded request that I withdrew my consent from research, Customer Care replied that "23andMe may still use the information for internal purposes." 23andMe was the door that, once opened, can never be shut.
I'm not done with 23andMe yet, however I am left to wonder what "internal purposes" means? Who has access to my data? What are they using it for? How many other people have made similar requests and had them unheeded?
Is it worth $199 to reveal your genetic code to a private company with big links to Big Data for the mere benefit of perhaps connecting with fifth-degree cousins. In the future will we be able to Google our DNA code?
My advice: If you're curious about your family tree, look to genealogy, not genetics.
Are the Lines Between Private and Public Becoming Blurred?
Reader Opinion Poll
To what extent are you concerned about the privacy of your genetic data?
Your genetic data, survey responses, and/or personally identifying information may be stolen in the event of a security breach. In the event of such a breach, if your data are associated with your identity they may be made public or released to insurance companies, which could have a negative effect on your ability to obtain insurance coverage. Although 23andMe cannot provide a 100% guarantee that your data will be safe, 23andMe has strong policies and procedures in place to minimize the possibi— 23andMe Consent Form
Who's Hanging Out In Your Family Tree?
Only You Know What Is Right For You
Location of 23andme near Google Headquarters
23andMe is located on Shorebird Way, Mountain View, CA (See Marker "A" in Map) -- walking distance from Google Headquarters (See Marker "B")
Decide What's Right For You
1Hamilton, Anita. "1. The Retail DNA Test - Best Inventions of 2008 - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - TIME.com. Last modified October 29, 2008. Accessed March 15, 2013.http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1852747_1854493_1854113,00.html.
2Rochman, Bonnie. "Good Genes - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - TIME.com. Last modified August 20, 2012. Accessed March 17, 2013.http://www.enhancedmedicalcare.com/portfolio-items/time-magazine/.
3 Neff, Gina. "23andMe vs. the FDA: Both are wrong." Slate Magazine. Last modified December 13, 2013.http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/12/13/_23andme_vs_the_fda_both_are_wrong.html?wpisrc=burger_bar.
4National Center for Biotechnology Information. "SNPs: Variations on a Theme." National Center for Biotechnology Information. Last modified September 20, 2007. Accessed March 16, 2013.http://www.livingnaturally.com/ns/DisplayMonograph.asp?StoreID=3ED1FF6A18BD42979FFF73C8E8CD4512&DocID=genomic-snp.
523andMe. "What are SNPs?" 23andMe. Accessed March 15, 2013. http://www.23andme.com.
623andMe. "Genotyping Technology." 23andMe. Accessed March 15, 2013. http://www.23andme.com.
7GenebyGene. "Products." DNA DTC. Accessed October 17, 2014.http://www.dnadtc.com/products.aspx.
© 2013 FlourishAnyway