Curious Dr. George | Plumbing the Core and Nibbling at the Margins of Cancer

You, Me, and 23: DTC Gene Tests

Melinda Roberts, Web and Product Development Lead Globiana Inc.

Q: Many people are interested in their own genes and wonder whether they are predisposed to cancer or other maladies.  You recently participated in the “23 and me” testing process. As a well-educated and informed consumer, did you find that service useful? Were the explanations given sufficient? Was it worth the cost and trouble? Have the results changed anything about your life?

A: Last December, my septuagenarian uncle left an urgent voice message for me, setting off several days of phone tag. When we finally connected he asked, “Have you heard of those DNA-based ancestry services? I know you’ve been researching our family tree, so I thought, why not? I did one and found out that we aren’t even Scottish! We’re Irish! My whole life has been a lie!”
The Pulpit Rock
Grandpa Tam
I thought of all the time I spent tracing some ancestors to the year 1639 and being frustrated that I couldn’t get more than a hundred years on the paternal side. At least we had documents! I looked at the ship’s manifest marking my grandparents’ emigration from Scotland, our family coat of arms that inspired one son’s semester art project, a photo of my Glaswegian grandfather posing proudly in the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band in East Calder, and thought, “Well, shoot. I’m going to have to spit in a tube.”

Off to I had, of course, heard of these services but thought them cost-prohibitive in light of our richly documented heritage, but now I was a little peeved and suddenly $99 was just fine. In fact, I would go one further and spring for the $199 “Health and Ancestry Service” that promised a comprehensive understanding of my ancestry, traits, and health. What a steal.
Just this month my reports were ready, and they were voluminous. Ancestry: 5 reports. Carrier Status: 42 reports. Genetic Health Risk: 4 reports. Traits: 19 reports (What??). Wellness: 8 Reports, plus an invitation to participate in their “DNA Relatives” program and to continue to share and compare information. They even worked in a little gamification, awarding “insights” for each set of research questions answered. 77 reports worked out to $2.58 a report. This was more than a steal.
What I learned:

  • No variant detected for any of the 42 carrier status listed
  • No variants detected for Late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease (you’re welcome, kids), Parkinson’s disease, or Hereditary Thrombophilia
  • Variant detected for Alpha-1 Anti…Antitryp…Antitrypsin Deficiency, but not likely at risk
  • I can detect Asparagus in urine
  • I probably don’t have dimples (I do), or a cleft chin
  • I probably DO have detached earlobes (check), light freckling (check), wet earwax (I have nothing to compare it to, so likely check), lighter eyes (check) had little baby hair (check), a longer second toe (check), no widow’s peak (check), little or no unibrow (check, thanks to tweezing), and prefer sweet taste over bitter (check), am predisposed to weigh more than average (thanks), unlikely to flush with alcohol (how can I tell? I’m probably drunk), likely to be a deep sleeper (check, until firstborn arrived), and don’t move around much in sleep (if I did, my husband and I would have to sleep in the Coliseum)
  • I have 1,258 relatives already in the 23andMe DNA Family! (Good upsell)

The service provides lots of fun graphics, such as the locations of my DNA relatives and migrations of my maternal line (presumably because the guys never asked for directions). Mom, you swung way east before heading north (the shortest route). Good job.

I can’t say I’ve changed anything in my life as a result of these findings, but I am very pleased to be able to tell my children that we are unlikely to face several very traumatic future ailments, and am newly motivated to contribute to their research.
By the way, I am 63% British and Irish. And as I was warned, nothing about Scotland, but of course that is because “Scottish” falls under British. I won’t tell Uncle Dougal.

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