Designer DNA Analysis

shutterstock_10448173.jpgEn route to a meeting in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo area yesterday, I happened upon a bizarre store hawking, of all things, DNA analysis. So I stopped in to see what DNA NYC, a temporary installation of Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Navigenics, was all about. For a mere $2,500 and a bit o' spit, I could find out if I have a greater than average risk of developing 18 different diseases, including breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and, oddly enough, restless legs syndrome.

Genetics testing, though vital to the introduction of that holy grail of personalized medicine, is also something of an ethical minefield. We’re only now starting to understand the emotional fallout from knowing in advance that we are likely to end up with a devastating disease. I asked the kind folks from Navigenics about this issue. Their solution is to offer counseling after a client gets the results. Furthermore, they say, a client can choose not to see certain results. Navigenics says a client can then bring that information to a doctor, who can recommend lifestyle changes that could mitigate the risk of those diseases that, genetically, the client is prone to.

Hmm. Certainly, there is a relationship between how we treat our bodies and how they treats us. (It’s worth checking out Carmen Drahl’s piece on metabolomics.) But I have to wonder whether someone who can afford a $2,500 test isn’t already doing a lot of the things—diet, physical exercise, mental exercise, etc.—that would help reduce the risk of many metabolic diseases.

Ethical issues aside, there was an unexpected benefit to my short diversion: They offered me a shirt as I was walking out of the store. Everyone else there—a genetics counselor, a research scientist, and a woman working the front desk—was wearing a “Hybrid” shirt. They handed me one that read “Wildtype.” I’m not sure what to make of that.

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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  1. Well, there’s a nerdy double-entendre in shirt form.

    I wonder what percentage of the people using this service are just seeking justification for being hypochondriacs.

  2. I like that… “Wildtype” in genetics basically means the normal population, but the general everyday person will assume that you’re a wild party-goer. I have to admit, however, that I prefer the mutant white-eyed fruit flies without wings. FAILflies, if you will, a la FAILblog.

    And, had I not been hired here, I think maybe I’d be an entrepeneur who started one of these “Find out if you have a deforming deadly genetic disease!” clinics. For those who have the money, it’s one of those things that is hard to pass up! Now all we have to do is figure out how to market it for grocery store check out lines… Impulse-purchase your own DNA test kits!

  3. Great post, Lisa. I’m flattered, but will give a shout-out to Rick Mullin’s vastly more comprehensive article.
    I’m betting that very few primary care physicians currently have the training to properly assess those kinds of test results.
    There’s a great debate on these companies chronicled at the Wired blog. They’re discussing a whole ‘nother kettle of fish: using genetic info to determine whether drugs (like coumadin or SSRI’s) will be more or less effective on you. 23andMe’s cofounder discusses how their clients’ information could form the basis for the truly comprehensive databases that’ll have to be in existence for “personalized medicine” of any sort to happen. I’m all for accumulating this information, but since I’m not a legal scholar, I have to ask: Does the company have to include a consent form with every purchase, since a client will automatically be part of a study, or can purchasing their product imply consent?

  4. Carmen, if you go to and click on “order now,” the second step of the ordering process involves some sort of “consent and waiver” form. You could probably enter John Doe or something similar in the first step if you wanted to click through to see the form.

  5. Thomas Goetz has been watching personalized medicine like a hawk. David Ewing Duncan has used over $100,000 worth of the tests on himself and his family. My take is that none of this will get interesting until better pharmacogenetic markers are discovered. Maybe then, 23andMe, Navigenics, and other companies will provide information with real clinical utility. That big blowup in science may stall such developments even further.