I have fascinating genes. At least, they fascinate me.
For the last several weeks, I’ve been getting up close and personal with my DNA as I compared three major do-it-yourself genetic-testing services. These services, which can indicate your risk of certain diseases, are outgrowths of the multibillion-dollar, multiyear effort to map the human genome. It’s where biotech meets infotech.
Caveats are in order. First, biology isn’t destiny: Heredity may play only a small part in determining whether you actually develop a condition. Also, there’s a chance the services, two of which also provide ancestry information, turn up things you’d rather not know. If you can get past those issues, they represent perhaps the ultimate in self-absorption.
To compare the three services -- Navigenics, 23andMe and deCODEme -- I signed up for all of them simultaneously. Once I registered and paid online, each sent me a kit to collect genetic material and a mailer to return it. I also returned the kits simultaneously.
Navigenics and 23andMe both use saliva samples for analysis. DeCODEme has a slightly more involved process, using a scraping of the inside of your cheek. I was a little concerned about messing things up, but a video on the Web site showed me how to do it. Results were made available on password-protected Web sites, along with resources to help interpret the findings.
Of the three, the $999 Navigenics service was generally the speediest and did the best job of keeping me posted on the process. Its kit arrived in a week, and my results were ready 11 days after I returned it.
Solely on Health
Navigenics, which is based in Foster City, California, focuses solely on health, covering 27 conditions from brain aneurysms to psoriasis. Findings are displayed on an easy-to- understand color-coded grid, with orange boxes indicating risks that may merit particular attention.
Clicking on any box plunges you deeper into the results, including detailed explanations of the variations in your genes that may constitute disease markers, tips to mitigate your risk through controlling non-genetic factors and links to support groups and other resources.
Navigenics also provides a toll-free number to discuss your results with a licensed genetic counselor; the one I talked to was clear and highly knowledgeable. The site also provides tips and tools for sharing results with your doctor.
Slowest to Report
23andMe is based in Mountain View, California, not far from one of its investors, Google Inc. It was the slowest of the services to report: While the kit arrived just four days after I placed my order, it took 18 days for the company to acknowledge receiving my sample, and an additional 17 days before it posted results. I spent the weeks filling out 30 or so simple surveys whose results 23andMe uses for research purposes.
Offsetting the long wait, the $499 test was the cheapest of the three, provided some of the most interesting (if not always important) information and incorporated social-networking and fun stuff along with the serious health material.
My results were presented as “clinical reports” covering 48 diseases and traits, and “research reports” on less vital conditions or areas where scientific consensus hasn’t quite jelled.
The site does a good job of explaining the results, and genetics junkies can dive deeply into how their risks were assessed. Here is also where I learned that only about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) of my body weight can be blamed on genetics; the other 20 or so pounds I could stand to lose are all me.
Unlike Navigenics, 23andMe provides ancestry information, and can scour its database to come up with an anonymous list of potential relatives -- in my case, almost 1,000 of them, ranging from a possible second cousin to others far more distant. Users can message each other through the service with invitations to share names and family histories, and compare genomes.
DeCODEme comes from DeCode Genetics Inc., a Reykjavik, Iceland-based company that filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. just as I was signing up for the $985 service.
The deCODEme kit was the last of the three to be delivered, 11 days after I ordered it. My results were available 22 days later, but only sort of. When I logged into the site, every item I clicked returned this message: “You cannot view further details until a health-care provider has reviewed your results.”
Questions were referred to a toll-free customer-service number. The woman who called back politely explained that I needed to provide a letter from my doctor stating that he was prepared to discuss the findings with me, and pointed me to deCODEme’s terms of service. Buried in eight computer screens’ worth of legalese, New Jersey, where I live, is listed as one of 11 states requiring that “a qualified health-care professional is involved in the ordering and the delivery of results.” The other two services didn’t require such hoop-jumping.
After I provided the doctor’s note, deCODEme required me to individually consent to see the results on each of the 48 health items it reported on. Even then I couldn’t get directly to my information; for each item, a pop-up window encouraged me to answer several optional research questions first.
Once I finally waded through everything, deCODEme provided an impressive amount of material to put my health results in perspective. But I found the ancestry information confusing and generic, compared with 23andMe’s. The best part was a Facebook- like friend function where I could troll for and invite other deCODEme users to share information. I only felt a little like a DNA stalker.
Overall, the findings of the three services, which broadly agreed with each other, are undoubtedly a lot more interesting to me than to you.
Among things I found out: While Type 2 diabetes runs on both sides of my family, the tests showed I have less of a genetic risk than most people -- which may mean I got lucky in the gene pool, or just that there are other markers the tests don’t yet pick up. On the other hand, I may have slightly greater than average odds of developing glaucoma, though there’s no family history of it.
Oh, and according to 23andMe, I metabolize caffeine faster than most people, which may explain why my four-shot Starbucks cappuccinos don’t send me rocketing through the ceiling.
If you’re thinking there’s something just a bit narcissistic in all this: You’re right. So enough about me. Let’s talk about me.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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