Advances made in DNA sequencing technology and genomic analysis has lowered the cost of sequencing a genome from millions of dollars a decade ago to less than $500 today. And, because of this, there are a growing number of companies that are willing to quickly and cheaply sequence and analyze your DNA. While this may be medically beneficial and appealing to some, it may not be for everyone. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, who will control access to and insure the privacy of your genetic information if you choose to have your genome sequenced and analyzed.
Alan McHughen, PhD, a molecular biologist and Professor of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California-Riverside, who has previously written about privacy and access to personal genomic data, wrote an article for BioJobBlog that explores the ramifications and possibility of DNA identity theft in the future. Also, he has written a book ‘Pandora’s Picnic Basket; The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods’ to refute the myths and explore the genuine risks of genetic modification technology
By Alan McHughen
For just $399 (plus shipping and handling), the scientists at 23and me.com will scan your complete genome. The DNA analysis reports on 118 different medical and health dispositions, your maternal and paternal ethnic ancestry, and a curious bunch of genetic trivia concerning your persona (is your earwax sticky or flaky?). All you do is pay the money and spit into a collection tube; they extract your DNA from the spit and look for half a million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) scattered throughout your genome, including many in or near genes associated with particular traits. Other companies offer similar services. For example, Decodeme.com charges $985, but catalogs twice as many SNPs, and you collect your DNA with a cheek swab.
Alternatively, if you don’t need the complete genome scan but are curious about specific medical conditions or family lineage, you can get less expensive gene tests from an increasing number of companies willing to take your money and DNA sample in exchange for the genetic information their scientists reveal. If heart disease runs in your family, you may either relieve or exacerbate your anxieties by shelling out $200 to have a cardio scan for relevant genetic predispositions. Or, for as little as $99, a man can have his Y chromosome probed to confirm his place in the family patrilineage, and possibly connect to ancient and famous princes or pirates.
These genetic information services, with prices now well into recreational and hobby budget range, provide the most personal, private — and unchangeable— information possible about you. The sinister side of this fascinating field is all too often overlooked—it can reveal your most intimate genetic details to strangers and nosy neighbors. While the various testing labs assure confidentiality, there is little to no control over personal genetic information. In the US, anything you discard is salvageable by anyone else, and your trash can become another’s treasure if it carries blood, saliva, hair, semen or any other DNA-laden bodily secretions.
While we worry about identity theft, personal financial or other private information, our uniquely personal information is up for grabs. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 offers some protection, but it is limited to employment and medical insurance issues. GINA does not protect your genetic information from being abused by life insurers. Or nosey neighbors.
Genetic privacy raises a whole spectrum of social, ethical, legal and medical issues. Suppose your neighbor salvages your trash and has your DNA analyzed. This local gossip then shares the juicy news that you have a “higher than average predisposition” to, say, alcoholism. Soon, everyone in the community shuns you as a latent alcoholic, and you have no idea why. The community knows more about your genetic makeup than you do. And, because they don’t know how to interpret statistical language such as “a higher than average predisposition”, those conditions may easily be exaggerated into probabilities, if not certainties.
If people have a right to know their own genetic information, they have the obverse right to NOT know. People can choose to remain ignorant about their genetic makeup. Consider, for example, Huntington’s disease (HD). This death sentence is one of the few health conditions almost due to genetics, and the DNA assay has been available for years. Curiously, most people at risk, i.e., those with HD in their direct lineage, choose NOT to take the test; they prefer not to know until (or if) symptoms appear. What happens when the local busybody lets the cat out of the bag on HD? Word will get around and the at-risk person will inevitably find out, if only by the ‘different’ treatment by neighbors, thus obliterating the exercise of their right to remain ignorant. Whether the test result is positive or negative on HD is immaterial at this point, the rights will have been violated. The DNA test for HD is currently more elaborate than the simple SNP analysis, but because SNPs associated with HD are being reported, it’s only a matter of time before they come generally available.
Perhaps you’ve suspected the woman down the street had a child from an adulterous one night stand a few years ago, and the cuckold husband remains a doting, if clueless, dad. Now, with just $89 (including overnight FedEx delivery!) and a little misdemeanor creativity, well within the standard ethical bounds of busybodies, you can satisfy your suspicions with a surreptitious and discrete paternity test. And, to provoke some real excitement in your sleepy small town, show the results to the husband.
A few minutes of thought and discussion generates many other issues and examples of the precarious security of personal genetic information and identity, and the potentially dire consequences of genetic information getting out. Society is yet to discuss the privacy issues surrounding genetic identity as vigorously as we have with personal financial or medical records. It’s getting late. Do you know where your DNA is?