Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Welcome to the genetic revolution

San Diego

I leave today for London. But as I woke this morning at 5.30am, I remembered that I had one last job to do before leaving. The bay was inky black and the street lights around the harbour were still twinkling. There, on my bedside table was an empty plastic sample tube.

I rubbed my eyes, sat up and got to work spitting in the tube. The instructions told me, “do not eat, drink, smoke, chew anything, brush your teeth or rinse your mouth for at least 60 minutes prior to collecting your saliva”. A couple of mouthfuls was all it took to reach the fill line, then I screwed on the blue cap and a clear preserving fluid ran into it. I shook it a bit, put the tube into a bag and Fedexed it off to a local company called Pathway Genomics. Welcome to the genetic revolution. Please deposit your DNA on the way in.


Pathway has been set up in competition to some of the consumer genomics companies launched a year or two ago. 23andme, Navigenics and deCODEme. It offers a surprising number of different tests, for $399. Navigenics cost $999, and 23andme costs $499. deCODEme is also quite pricey but this company is bankrupt at present and has been bought up. The fate of its consumer genetics division remains unclear. Another company, Counsyl, has also started up just offering to test for carrier genes of rare conditions ($349), which makes Pathway look like pretty good value.


Of course when taking this test this morning there were all sorts of things going through my mind. Excitement at discovery and fear of finding out something bad. Of course, genes are not destiny. But they do tell you something about what might make you sick, and most of us like to go through life without having to think about this sort of thing. And when I visited the lab yesterday, I was told that I could actually register so that if there was anything I didn't want to know about, I could chose not to have these results shown to me (or Pathway's genetic counsellors that review their customers' data).

None of us are perfect, something that becomes increasingly evident as we age. Genetic information means that I'll have the best information possible to understand how to look after this body through, I hope, many more decades alive on this planet. What would be better for me, an hour doing cardiovascular training or yoga or swimming? Maybe my health and genetic profile will give me some clues about how best to look after myself.

I'd also be interested in any clues to my ancestry (also promised as part of the test), and on which migratory path they took around the globe. The tests will also tell me if I am a carrier of any genetic mutations that can cause genetic disorders, and also whether my genes are likely to cause any adverse responses to drugs that are given for medical conditions.

I'm particularly thrilled about discovering one very trivial piece of information, whether I have a fast or slow caffeine metabolism. If you have a slow caffeine metabolism it means that caffeine hangs around your body far longer and it is much more likely to give you a heart attack.