October 16, 2013 at 9:30 am #41336
What Is 23andMe Really Selling: The Moral Quandary At The Center Of The Personalized Genomics Revolution
This week, 23andme, the personalized genomics company founded by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, got an influx of investment cash ($50 million). According to their press release, they are using the money to bring the cost of their genetic test down to $99 (it was previously $299) which, they hope, will inspire the masses to get tested.
So should the masses indulge?
I prefer a quantified self approach to this question. At the heart of thequantified self-movement lies a very simple idea: metrics make us better. For devotees, this means self-tracking, using everything from the Nike fuel band to the Narcissism Personality Index to gather large quantities of personal data andthe bigger ideause that data to improve performance.
If you consider that performance suffers when health suffers then a genetic test can been seen as a kind of metric used to improve performance. This strikes me as the best way to evaluate this idea and leads us to ask the same question about personalized genomics that the quantified self movement asks about every other metric: will it improve performance.
Arguments rage all over the place on this one, but the short answer is that SNP testswhich is the kind of DNA scan 23andme relies upon dont tell us all that much (yet). They analyze a million genes out of three billion total and the impact those million play in long term-health outcomes is still in dispute. For example, the nature/nurture split is normally viewed at 30/70meaning environmental factors play a far more significant role in long-term health outcomes than genetics.
Moreover, all of the performance metrics used by the quantified self movement are used to for behavior modificationto drive self-improvement. Personalized genomics isnt there yet. As Stanford Universitys Nobel Prize-winning RNA researcher Andy Fire once told me, if someone off the street is looking for pointers on how to live a healthier life, theres nothing these tests will tell you besides basic physician advice like eat right, dont smoke and get plenty of exercise.
And even with more well-regarded SNP tests, like the ones that examine the BRCA 1 and 2 markers for breast cancerwhich only account for between 5 and 27 percent (estimates vary) of all breast cancersidentifying risk factors does not always lead to easy treatment options. NYU Langone Medical Center bioethicist Arthur Caplan explains it like this, Say you test positive for a breast cancer dispositionthen what are you going to do? The only preventative step you can take is to chop off your breasts.
So if prevention is not available the only thing left is fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, in the past few decades, there have been hundreds of studies linking stress to everything from immunological disorders to heart disease to periodonitic troubles. So while finding out you may be at risk for Parkinsons may make you feel informed, that knowledge isnt going to stop you from developing the diseasebut the resulting stress may contribute to a host of other complications.
This brings up a different question: if personalized genomics cant yet help us much and could possibly hurt uswheres the upside?
Turns out theres a big upside: Citizen science. SNP tests are not yet viable because we need more info. 23andme talks about the power of one million people, meaning, if one million take these tests then the resulting genetic database could lead to big research breakthroughs and these could lead to all sorts of health/performance improvements.
This is what 23andme is really selling for $99 bucks a popa crowdsourced shot at unraveling a few more DNA mysteries.
And this also means that the question at the heart of the personalized genomics industry is not about metrics at allits about morals: Should I risk my health for the greater good?October 16, 2013 at 1:43 pm #41337
If we believe as Healing Tao practitioners that even our DNA itself is possibly open to change, I think such testing actually acts as cross-purposes to our goals. If you identify a particular DNA sequence as “you”, it makes it more difficult to shift to a new reality where “you” have a different DNA sequence. This locks you in to the particular pattern of illnesses that the DNA testing tells you that you are susceptible to, and impedes your ability to shift out of it. It’s better to allow for the possibility that everything is possible and changeable.
SOctober 17, 2013 at 5:31 pm #41339
In my opinion they be tryin to prep us for customized genetic manipulations…if you want to keep up with your fellows you gotta get modified! /eyeroll
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