Back in 2000, I was among the first to pay to have my DNA tested for genealogical reasons. Some of you may know me as Kit No. 65 at Family Tree DNA.
My only goal was tracking roots, sometimes very deep roots going back to Africa, where this whole modern human enterprise began tens of thousands of years ago.
It's been fascinating. I have learned a little bit about genetics and in recent years have started to match people with whom I shared a grandparent thousands, even hundreds, of years ago.
I wanted a sense of where my family came from, to trace the migratory pattern from Africa, through ancient Palestine, maybe Italy and Germany and then a right turn onto Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine and eventually on to the USA.
I have met and become friends with a number of people who share this interest, some might say an obsession, along with some common genes.
With this personal research, genetic diseases were lurking in the background, but were not center stage. Companies like FTDNA (www.familytreedna.com) avoided medical implications of DNA--it was all just family fun, so to speak. And loads of companies have piled on to go tell us about our ancestry.
But now new companies are entering the field, including Iceland-based deCODE genetics (decodeme.com)and Google-backed 2andme (23andme.com) to take genetics to a new level, combining the latest research genetic diseases and family history with a Web-based delivery system.
Will genetics be a new entertainment concept? How about a game show, Name Those Genes,hosted by James Watson, my South Side Chicago homeboy, where contestants have their genome and pedigree taken apart, really ripped apart, by a pro?
In fact, the Killer In Me, a UK TV show, looks at the genetic risks faced by a high-profile panel. (www.itv.com/Lifestyle/KillerInMe/default.html) Will heart disease knock off a retired footballer turned commentatoe? Will a TV news reader develop early Alzheimer's? Inquiring minds want to know.
Sound like fun to you? That's genome-tainment in the age of reality TV.
And now everyday people with a $1,000 burning in their pockets can find out about themselves, including their Killers In Them. Will it save lives? Will the information be abused? What about genetic information ruining an individual's insurance rating, a major concern in these United States.
Plug a name into Google and you can get a phone number, an address and maybe even a Candid Camera-like photo of the person standing in front of his house or sitting in her window with her cat. Plug in a stock ticker and Google serve up the latest price. Will we soon plug in a gene marker into Google and find out what diseases we have or might get along with a listing of other people with the same condition so we can form an instant online support group? See you at MyGene at MySpace or Genebook at Facebook so we can "social network." Will the public overinterpret or misinterpret these tests?
Will gene-hate groups, or "fiscally responsible" insurance companies or employers, use that data in nefarious ways, to discriminate, fire, isolate, sterilize, euthanize? It can't happen, here, right?
In the San Jose Mercury News, Stanford law prof Hank Greely, who has been taking shots at the genetic testing companies, warns that the best of intentions with this testing could cause problems: "A lot of the genetic results are early, weak and preliminary. One worries that people will think the information is more
powerful than it actually is and change their lives based on it."
New York Times genetics beat reporter Amy Harmon was scanned by 23andme and got a glimpse at her personal genome and found:"My risk of breast cancer was no higher than average, as was my chance of developing Alzheimer’s. I was 23 percent less likely to get Type 2 diabetes than most people. And my chance of being paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, almost nil. I was three times more likely than the average person to get Crohn's disease, but my odds were still less than one in a hundred." (www.nytimes.com/2007/11/17/us/17dna.html?ex=1352955600&en=e7fcc2972b0a540c&ei=5089&partner=rssyahoo&emc=rss)
Personally, I believe we should get as much information as we can to prevent what we can prevent. I also believe in sharing that data.
When I had a heart attack at age 57, despite being a non-smoking exerciser on a low-fat diet, it was a shock. But the steps I had taken to be healthy over the years no doubt help save my life and minimize the damage. At the suggestion of my cardiologist, I shared my story in a newspaper article in the Chicago Sun-Times, where I have worked for a quarter decade, with the hope it would help others.
But I also believe companies need to ensure that consumers understand the results they get and assure them that the data is protected. (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4155/is_20050328/ai_n13507775) (http://findarticles.com/p
We've are entering a Brave New World of genetic information. Let's hunt the Killers In Us, with our eyes open and the knowledge that while our fate in not only in our genes but in the way we live our lives.