by Andrea Karr
WE ALL HAVE at least one person who is impossible to shop for come birthdays or Christmas. What are you supposed to buy for the person who has everything? The answer could lie with direct-to-consumer DNA testing, an industry that’s on the rise with millions of people curious to learn what’s hiding in their chromosomes. But before you buy, it’s essential to understand the benefits to your loved one—and the potential consequences.
When it comes to purchasing a kit, the process is simple. Typically, you’ll order it online for around $100 to $200 and have it shipped to your home in an easy-to-wrap box. The recipient of your gift will then mail a DNA sample—most often a vial of saliva—to the personal genomics company for analysis and receive an online report in a matter of weeks.
The types of reports vary. Some companies provide ancestry information, which can help recipients understand their heritage, make a family tree and get in touch with distant relatives. Other companies supply health data that may encourage individuals to make better lifestyle choices or take preventative measures against genetic predispositions. “We recently surveyed our customers and 76 per cent report at least one positive behaviour change,” says a spokesperson for 23andMe, one of the most popular personal genomics companies in the world.
One particularly interesting area of testing is pharmacogenetics, where a cheek swab can provide information to your healthcare practitioner about how you metabolize medications—from antidepressants to beta blockers. “Individuals metabolize medications at different speeds,” notes a spokesperson for myDNA, which has its own version of the test. “Arming a pharmacist or doctor with this information can help them get their patient on the right medication and dose sooner.”
Almost without fail, these tests provide an entertaining glimpse into data that was previously difficult to come by—and sometimes that information produces tangible positive outcomes. But because democratization of this technology is still so new, there are risks when it comes to sharing details about your identity with a DNA testing company. The most significant? Loss of privacy.
In June 2018, a server containing the email addresses of MyHeritage users was hacked—though no other information was leaked. Most personal genomics companies take careful steps to store personal information and DNA results separately as a security precaution, and will wipe personal identifiers if you opt to share your DNA with third-party researchers and drug developers. Still, it’s possible to cross-reference DNA with public information like voter lists and, in some cases, identify the owner.
Another privacy issue was addressed in Canada in May 2017 when the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act (GNDA) became law. GNDA prevents any company from requiring an individual to undergo genetic testing or disclose the results of a genetic test as a condition for obtaining goods or service—such as an insurance policy—or to qualify for a job. In December 2018, the Quebec Court of Appeal challenged the law as unconstitutional, saying it infringes on provincial jurisdiction.
Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, took a different view at the time and called for even stronger protection at the federal level—especially as technology develops. “Taking a DNA test puts anyone at risk when they try to get a job, adopt a child, travel, get insurance or access health care,” she said. “We have yet to fully understand the potential risks we all now face when taking a genetic test. In this information age where people’s personal data is being widely collected and misused, genetic information can be used in ways we did not predict or expect.”
Whether you undergo testing with a doctor or use an at-home kit, your genetic material matters. It can be a powerful tool, but it’s also highly sensitive and impossible to change—unlike a credit card number or password. If you choose to take a DNA test or give one as a gift, keep up-to-date on the company’s privacy policies and the genetic information protection laws that govern your province. And remember: If you or your gift recipient wants the physical sample destroyed or your account deleted at any time, companies like myDNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA promise to honour that right.
THREE DNA KITS WORTH UNWRAPPING
Whether you were adopted, failed to ask your parents about your heritage while they were alive or simply want an in-depth picture of your genetic makeup, AncestryDNA can help. Their DNA test will provide information about your origins across 500 geographic regions and match you with living relatives. AncestryDNA has sold more than 15 million kits to date, meaning they have a wide pool of material.
METHOD: Saliva collection
One of the most interesting and varied DNA kits on the market, 23andMe Health + Ancestry includes more than 130 reports about your personal traits (including the likelihood that you have dandruff and are prone to mosquito bites), predisposition toward certain diseases and genetic variants you could pass on to your children. The test also analyzes ancestry for more than 1,500 regions worldwide.
METHOD: Saliva collection
PRICE: $199 for the Health + Ancestry kit
This Australian company offers a few different kit types, including a PGx (a.k.a. pharmacogenetics) test that provides information on how individuals break down certain medications. With this knowledge, your pharmacist or physician can better understand which prescription antidepressants or pain meds are likely to be most effective for your biochemistry.
METHOD: Cheek swab
PRICE: $199 at an accredited pharmacy