Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year! Find your prostate cancer buddies!

Well, the holidays are over, I'm freaking tired and beat up (hand-stands at 5am on new years eve/technically new years day), but it was a good break nonetheless.

On another note - ever used a social networking tool such as facebook and asked yourself "Who else is pre-disposed to prostate cancer??"

Well, look no further. There is a startup called 23AndMe that will profile your DNA for $1k. In '08 they will be wrapping social networking functionality around it - and all I can say is "Vierd".

While it is cool to have your DNA analyzed to find out interesting things about you never easily accessed before, I'm not sold on the social networking angle. Perhaps that's tossed in there to sell the VC's - "Did They Say SOCIAL NETWORKING?? FUND IT NOW!"

I'm thinking of doing it - but there are privacy implications. Also, if I do, it would probably be in the summer when they have expanded their capabilities in analysis.

Further - what is the impact? Wired says it best:

To act on this data, we first need to understand it. That means the companies must translate the demanding argot of genetics — alleles and phenotypes and centromeres — into something approachable, even simple, for physicians and laypersons alike. It's one thing for a doctor to tell patients that smoking is bad for them, or that their cholesterol count is high. But how are you supposed to react when you're told you have a genetic variation at rs6983267 that's been associated with a 20 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer? And what are physicians, most likely untrained in and unprepared for genomic medicine, to do when a patient comes in wielding a printout that indicates a particular variation of a particular gene?

What's also "interesting" is sites like Scientific Match - use your DNA to profile potential matches.


citydan said...

This is one of those cool areas where science and tech have swooped way past ethics, law, and culture. We, as a culture and as individuals, really have no framework for understanding this stuff. Even medical experts, as you've quoted from Wired, don't have a good understanding of genetics let alone its application to "real life".

I think there is so little understanding in general of genetics that 23andMe has a potential to produce rumours, trash, and hysteria only matched by the tabloid industry. Really cool stuff :)

I'd love to try it, but honestly I think I might learn more about myself by spending $1000 on a Fortune Teller.

Let me back that up a bit: I have a BSc in Genetics, so I'm fairly familiar with the subject matter. There is just such a big gulf between genetic pre-disposition and actual expression of traits in most cases that it's the old Nature vs. Nurture debate until the cows come home. The Mendelian Genetics we all remember from high school is true, but a very small part of what's going on. Breed a black horse with a white one and get grey horses. There are simple examples of genetic inheritance in all our lives that we can point to: male pattern baldness, eye colour, height, skin colour, etc. So some of the stuff you'll learn from 23andMe will be pretty straight forward and cool. But how about musical intelligence, mechanical aptitude, cancer risk, or predisposition to being a jerk?

That's where the "tabloid" genetics comes in: the vast realm of possibility that lies between a piece of DNA (which codes for a certain sequence of amino acids, which in turn usually fold into proteins, which then become enzymes, structural components, or other physical parts) and the happenstance of human experience, choice, chance, and accident.

Not to get philosophical (but at some point that's all that's left since genetics is so vast and so new), but am I free or if I have a 67% genetic pre-disposition to being a smoker, am I screwed? It's a similar kind of determinism that has people try to micro-manage me because I'm a Virgo. It just doesn't work that way.

When they find genes that co-relate to alcoholism, for example, sometimes it leads to therapies that end up helping people, and sometimes it ends up being an excuse to keep drinking. There's a point where science stops and human choices begin. If the framework for understanding genetic pre-dispositions is not understood, it can be destructive to people. Are the un-washed masses ready to carry this torch?

ProstateCancer said...

As a cancer survivor, I wanted to connect with other cancer survivors, and I feel fortunate to have found cancermatch at I encourage all of my cancer friends to join me there.