Chris Oaks spoke with Dr. Emily Conley of 23andMe, a private, commercial genetic testing company.
Q: Friday, April 25, was designated DNA Day to commemorate the completion of the human genome project in 2003. Your company recently commissioned a survey to find out how much average Americans understand about advancements in DNA research. What did you find?
A: A vast majority of people have a basic knowledge about what we can learn from examining an individual’s DNA, for example, whether they are genetically disposed to develop a certain medical condition or pass a certain trait on to their children.
Understanding of the specific science like DNA structure is less widely understood, but that’s of less importance than recognizing the benefits that come from greater understanding of the human genome.
Q: Is that due to the fact that DNA has become so commonplace, in everything from solving crimes to treating medical conditions?
A: Exactly. In the news, we learn about the latest advancements in science. It even permeates popular culture.
Last year, for example, actress Angelina Jolie decided to take proactive measures to avoid developing breast cancer after learning she was genetically predisposed.
Q: But that’s a perfect example of the concern some have raised, that the understanding of what our DNA can tell us is outpacing the average person’s ability to comprehend how we should use that information.
Some argue Ms. Jolie drastically overreacted by having a double mastectomy as a preventive measure. There are those who go further in that criticism, saying that your company is contributing to that problem by offering private DNA testing on-demand, without a doctor’s supervision.
How do you respond?
A: Our stance has always been to empower individuals by giving them the tools to explore their own genetic makeup, if they so desire. What they decide to do with that information and how they choose to act on it, however, should always come from a serious discussion with other family members and a family physician.
It should be pointed out that, while we know more about human DNA now than ever, there’s still much we don’t know. So, the right course of action for one individual may not be appropriate for someone else.
But ultimately, we feel having the information available is better than not. I think it’s an individual choice, but I do believe that, within the next few years, a DNA test will be just another component in the standard routine of health care.
It can be revolutionary, really, in the sense that it will one day provide a “road map” for one’s health management plan.
Q: When DNA tests first became available and began to be more widely used, there was worry that health insurance companies would demand the results be disclosed so they could use that information to assess risk and set higher premiums. Is that still a concern?
A: That was a legitimate issue, which is why Congress passed the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act to prohibit insurance companies from doing just what you describe.
It’s important to note that this law was passed in 2008, separate from any of the health care reform measures that have been enacted since, meaning, regardless of what happens with the Affordable Care Act, consumers are protected against rates being raised or coverage being denied based on one’s DNA test results.
Q: Do individuals who use your service to have their DNA tested always do so for health and medical reasons?
A: That’s certainly one of the key areas of interest, but not always the only one. Often, people are curious to learn more about their genetic heritage.
As we know, America is a melting pot, and sometimes people discover things about their ancestry they never imagined.
“Good Mornings!” with Chris Oaks airs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays on WFIN, 1330 kHz. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 419-422-4545.
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