Genes: Big Data Gets Personal on Individual Health

November 5, 2013
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ImageBy Carol Dorn Sanders (SAS)

The buzz is starting to brew for 23andMe – the genetic testing company that launched in 2006. You may have learned about the company recently in radio commercials, television shows or Forbes and Fast Company.

ImageBy Carol Dorn Sanders (SAS)

The buzz is starting to brew for 23andMe – the genetic testing company that launched in 2006. You may have learned about the company recently in radio commercials, television shows or Forbes and Fast Company.

Most people had not heard of the company until the founder, Anne Wojcicki, lowered the price of an individual DNA kit to $99 (discounts are sometimes available.) Then the buzz started.

The service provides you with information about your ancestry, as well as 240 reports on health conditions and traits. Wojcicki’s goal is to genotype and enroll 1 million people in the registry by the end of 2013 and ultimately many more.

“I want 25 million people,” she told Fast Company. “Once you get 25 million people, there’s just a huge power of what types of discoveries you can make. Big data is going to make us all healthier. What kind of diet should certain people be on? Are there things people are doing that make them really high-risk for cancer?”

As an employee of SAS, the leader in health analytics, I certainly understand the value of big data, so I decided I would help Anne reach her goal.

A couple of weeks ago, I shipped my saliva kit to California, and now I wait…

The power to know my data

I am most interested in learning more about my heritage. I never knew three of my four grandparents. And, I’ve learned later in life about genetic issues that had not been broadly shared across our family. I’ll even find out how much of my DNA is from the Neanderthals! (I’ve never pondered this, but now I want to know!)

The 23andMe website, 23andme.com, warns that you cannot “unlearn” the information found in the reports, so I guess there is a risk that I’ll learn things about myself and family – like health risks, carrier status, etc. – that may cause anxiety.

But 23andMe is not the only genetic testing for which I am awaiting results.

One of my primary care doctors is participating in a national study specifically focused around breast cancer and Lynch Syndrome. She suggested at my annual physical that I enroll, given my family history. I should know the results of the cancer screening next week, in fact, and I expect to receive the results from 23andMe in another month or so.

Getting real about personalized medicine

My doctor said this is the first real step in personalized medicine and walked me through some proactive steps we would take depending on the results of the tests.

I’m curious to see how I respond to the reports. I’m a pretty data- and fact-driven person, but I wonder what I’ll do with the information presented. Will it paralyze me? Will I change behavior? Will I worry more? Will I assume that every ache or pain is something dramatic instead of natural aging?

I can’t really predict my reaction. For now, all I know is I am about to get one big dose of Carol Dorn Sanders’ data!

image: DNA testing/shutterstock