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Masters of Fate

Written by Sabrina Maddeaux

What if you could gaze into a crystal ball and see your future? Thanks to recent advances in DNA testing, you can (kind of). A spate of new biotechnology companies offering DNA testing to consumers claim they can help you learn vital info about your genetic health.  They can decipher your risk for things like hereditary hearing loss, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease and more. They can determine your exact ancestry composition, gauge how effective various medications will be for you, and analyze your caffeine metabolism, bitter taste perception and muscle performance. Heck, these guys can even predict male-pattern baldness and when a woman will go through menopause. 

You don’t even have to travel to some sterile, sci-fi worthy lab to get tested. There are no needles involved. You simply spit into a vial, and then mail it. 

One of the most prominent companies offering DNA testing services is California-based 23andMe. Their kits go for $199 and return results on inherited conditions, drug responses, genetic risk factors and genetic traits. According to Emily Drabant Conley, 23andMe’s vice-president of business development, the results are remarkably accurate: “In the United States we’ve gone through the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) process to ensure the data we provide. We’ve had to show that our tests are accurate over 99 per cent of the time in their ability to detect what your genetic variants are.” 

But that doesn’t mean that you should read the test results as a concrete conclusion. “Such tests have to be taken within the context of a person's environment since even people who are not predisposed to a particular disease can of course get the disease,” explains Kevin Camilleri, chief operating officer of UK-based EasyDNA, which sells a variety of DNA testing kits ranging from $199 to $1,590. “So the primary value of these tests is to provide an indication of a person's genetics with a view to taking advice and preventive action where the risk is relatively high.” 

“So, if someone tests positive for the gene that’s linked to Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t definitely mean that they’ll get Alzheimer’s,” says Drabant Conley.

Still, these tests have the potential to be a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare — the ultimate WebMD black hole. While 23andMe’s terms of service warns that, “some of the information you receive may provoke strong emotion,” can anyone really be prepared for the news that they’ll likely one day lose their hearing, or even most of their memories? The question begs, would you even want to know?

Drabant Conley points to the over one million people who have tried 23andMe: “We find, for the most part, people feel really empowered by knowing about their risks and having the choice to respond to them. The thing is people have a tendency to either underestimate or even overestimate the power of genetics. Sometimes people say, ‘Well I don’t want to know how I’m going to die.’ But that’s not what 23andMe provides. No one can provide that.” 

Even consumers who have no qualms about reading their genetic tealeaves shouldn’t jump into DNA testing without some serious reflection. The risks go beyond receiving potentially bad news — especially in Canada. 

Most First World countries have legislation that prevents genetic discrimination, and even the United Nations passed a resolution on genetic privacy and non-discrimination. Canada has no such laws. This means that your employer or insurance company can legally ask if you’ve had DNA testing, and what your results were. “Insurance companies might use the data to charge higher premiums to a person who genetically is more highly predisposed to particular diseases than others,” says Camilleri.

According to the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness, 91 per cent of Canadians feel that insurance companies should not be able to access their genetic information for an insurance assessment. 90 per cent of Canadians also oppose employers having access to results. 

“It’s really disappointing that Canada is the only G7 nation that doesn’t have genetic non-discrimination legislation,” says Drabant Conley. “Genetics have a strong role to play in health and the last thing we want to do is discourage people from having information from their DNA that could be valuable for their health because they’re afraid of being discriminated against.” 

If the Canadian government can get its act together and catch up with the rest of the Western world, the future for DNA testing looks endless. Already, genetics are being used to perfect beauty routines and combat aging. 23andMe recently collaborated with Olay to look at what genes are turned on and off in women who look exceptionally young for their age. As one might expect, exceptional agers had different genes turned on than the average woman. The beauty company hopes to one day create products around this discovery so that everyone can benefit, whether you’re born with ‘It’ or not. 

Texas-based dermatologist Ruthie Harper, M.D’s business, SkinShift, uses patients’ own DNA to diagnose their skincare needs. She uses genetics to determine your levels of naturally occurring antioxidants, sun sensitivity, collagen and inflammation levels, then prescribes a highly personalized skincare routine based on your genetic profile. 

EasyDNA also lists a “DNA Fitness Test” that can help determine your athletic potential and optimize your workout plan, as well as a “Skin DNA Test” that could theoretically help you prevent aging.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what DNA can tell us. Genetic testing is here to stay,” says Camilleri. “ In the near future it will be the new normal.”