How much is too much or how little is too little? For as little as $1,000 and a saliva sample, customers will be able to learn what is known so far about how the billions of bits in their biological code shape who they are. Three US companies have already announced plans to market such services.
But given the element of uncertainty in DNA testing and results, what this new development means remains a moot point.
AdvertisementDNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person's body has the same DNA.
In the nucleus of each cell, the DNA molecule is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. Every human being carries 46 chromosomes, in each cell. Located on these chromosomes are the genes, which produces key proteins, such as hormones and enzymes and which play a pivotal role in the well- being of an individual.
Every person has two copies of each gene, one inherited from each parent. Most genes are the same in all people, but a small number of genes (less than 1 percent of the total) are slightly different between people. These small differences contribute to each person's unique physical features.
Some diseases result from abnormalities or 'mutations', on the chromosomes. Others may arise due to defects in the genes. In some instances, genetic abnormalities are hereditary, while in others it is brought on spontaneously or 'de novo'. It is now widely believed by the scientific fraternity that a combination of genes and environment brings about these mutations, leading to a range of illnesses.
Genetically speaking, the human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.
Now the nascent industry is offering to tell you whether one could have inherited arthritis or is predisposed to Type 1 diabetes?
That is fine perhaps, enabling one to take necessary precautions, wherever possible. But at a time when health care is becoming privatized and costs are skyrocketing, what is the guarantee that the genetic information obtained from testing centres would not be used against us?
And there is a distinct possibility such a turn could come about in the US, it is feared.
"Before I spit into the vial, I called several major insurance companies to see if I was hurting my chances of getting coverage. They said no, but that is now, when almost no one has such information about their genetic make-up. In five years, if companies like 23andMe are at all successful, many more people presumably would. And isn't an individual's relative risk of disease precisely what insurance companies want to know?" wonders Amy Harmon writing in New York Times.
Besides the anguish such undigested information as provided by the DNA testing centres is another matter of concern, say when multiple sclerosis could be traced on your genetic horizon.
It could all prove devastating and the way one could cope with such a situation varies from person to person.
Some health care providers argue that the public is unprepared for such information and that it is irresponsible to provide it without an expert to help put it in context.
One of the companies that plans to market personal DNA information, Navigenics, intends to provide a phone consultation with a genetic counselor along with the results. Its service would cost $2,500 and would initially provide data on 20 health conditions.
DeCODE Genetics and 23andMe will offer referrals. Although what they can tell you is limited right now, all three companies are hoping that people will be drawn by the prospect of instant updates on what is expected to be a flood of new findings.
Still proper mechanism should better be in place before the DNA testing industry takes roots, it is counseled.