Wednesday, December 17, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

DNA holds on to its mystery even as we try to decode it

MarionFranckW

By
From page A15 | July 21, 2013 |

When I was offered a free gene test kit from a company called 23andMe, I signed up as a lark. I was curious to learn about my ancestors, and I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I’d be receiving health data, too. When it arrived via a web site, the little padlock around my Alzheimer’s risk brought me up short.

Should I look?

Instead of clicking, I headed for the library where I found a book titled “Here is a Human Being,” published in 2010 with the subtitle, “At the Dawn of Personal Genomics.”

The author, Misha Angrist, was one of the first to have his entire genome sequenced. Although he describes himself as a pretty anxious guy, he has a strong background in genetics and was comfortable making his genome public.

However, most of his book is about other people: scientists and entrepreneurs who have been trying to decode DNA and market the decoding. In addition, Angrist tells stories of first-time users like himself.

It turns out that I’m far from alone in being nervous about my Alzheimer’s status. The APOE4 gene correlates with higher-than-average odds of getting Alzheimer’s, especially if you receive copies from both parents. No lesser person than James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and one of the first to have his genome sequenced, chose not to know whether he carries APOE4.

Unfortunately, another scientist was able to deduce Watson’s APOE4 status from studying genes around what Watson had put in the public domain. Angrist doesn’t reveal Watson’s results, but he observes that nowadays steps you take toward privacy don’t necessarily succeed.

————

The company I used, 23andMe, does not decode your entire genome. Rather, it studies something less expensive: about one million individual points on the genome called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), biological markers that offer clues to your DNA.

When 23andMe utilizes a marker for disease, how much is known about that marker? How does it compare to other markers they don’t test for? For each disease, does it take one marker or many to know your risk?

These are important questions.

23andMe cites numerous research studies from all over, but it is difficult for a non-scientist like me to weigh the importance of one study over another.

In addition, scientists agree that environment plays a huge role in whether or not you develop a disease. If, for example, I have a susceptibility marker for diabetes but I lead an extremely healthy lifestyle and eat a good diet, what are my chances of getting the disease? If my uncle had diabetes, am I more likely to get it?

Some day aggregated data from millions of people will provide answers. 23andMe asks customers to fill out questionnaires that will contribute to that kind of research, but how much should I trust what I receive right now? How well do I understand it?

Angrist writes, “I knew enough about statistics to know that having a risk ratio go from 1 to 1.6 or even 2 meant my absolute risk had only risen from, say, 1 in 10,000 to 2 in 10,000.”

I didn’t know that. Most of the risk numbers I received from 23andMe compare my risk to average risk. This is confusing. Do I have to investigate each marker further to understand my absolute risk?

————

People react unpredictably to news about their genes. Some of us are great at denial or letting go of worries, while others are inclined to make mountains out of mole hills. When it comes to health, I’m in the latter group.

Angrist cites one scientist, Harvard neurologist Robert Green, who discovered that people who learn that they are at higher-than-average risk for serious disease become distressed at first but then return to normal, with no regrets about having obtained the information.

Really? I’d like to know more about this.

Even if people remain calm in the face of bad health news, will they overload the medical system as they investigate possible future problems? Should we anticipate a new flood of medical spending?

DNA-related companies are proliferating and information about genes is coming at us like a tidal wave. For example, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, has predicted that complete sequencing of newborns “is not far away.”

How will this affect a child’s future? The brave new world of genetics could change our society as much as cell phones or the internet.

But interpretation of results is in its infancy. And we don’t know enough about human response to receiving this data, which my own psyche says could be painful.

In his last pages, Angrist reminds us that the devil is in the details. He gives the example of a gene for type 2 diabetes which, if you receive it from your father, puts you in danger of the disease, but if you receive it from your mother, protects. It will take huge population studies to tease out the truth of such things; those of us who get genetic information now don’t receive much that is comprehensive and verified.

I still haven’t looked at my Alzheimer’s results.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at marionf2@gmail.com

Comments

comments

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

     
    Million Cat Challenge aims to rescue shelter felines

    By Pat Bailey | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    Everest visit fulfills judge’s lifelong dream

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    Supervisors remove Saylor from First 5 Yolo Commission

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1

    GPAS and test scores up for UCD’s newest undergrads

    By Julia Ann Easley | From Page: A1

     
    Fatal Capay crash leads to driver’s arrest

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

    U.S., Cuba seek to normalize relations

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

     
    Water officials fret over rain’s effects

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2 | Gallery

    Bob Dunning: Not enough hours in the month

    By Bob Dunning | From Page: A2

     
    Donate to STEAC at Original Steve’s

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Beer and film tour boosts bike group’s coffers

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Yolo Crisis Nursery in full swing

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

     
    Creative women share food, friendship

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Pedal around Davis on weekly bike ride

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Traditional carols service is Saturday at St. Martin’s

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Have coffee with the mayor on Friday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Stockings brighten holidays for special kids

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4 | Gallery

    Evening tai chi classes start Jan. 6

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Overeaters get support at meetings

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Fibro Friends will update their journals

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Input sought on county’s facility needs

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

     
    Name Droppers: Law prof earns peace prize for nonfiction

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

    Community menorah lighting set Wednesday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

     
    Latest immunization data shows little improvement locally

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A5

    School board will vote on repairs, new portables

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A6

     
    Study: National monument could boost local economy

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

    Parent/toddler art and music program offered

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

     
    Libraries will be closed around the holidays

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

    Cloudy — yet safe — tap water adds to negative health effects

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

     
    Round up at the registers for Patwin

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

    Come Worship with Us

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A10

     
    .

    Forum

    This ought to teach her love

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

     
    Many thanks to The Avid Reader

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

    Language failed me that night, but not now

    By New York Times News Service | From Page: A8

     
    Steve Sack cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A8

    Grand jury function clarified

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

     
    Defying Western academic norms

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

    Boycotters are our future profs

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A8

     
    .

    Sports

    UCD reveals a challenging softball schedule

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Tumey talks about state of Aggie athletics, where they’re headed

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Davis gets Rio Linda as Curry Invitational starts Thursday

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Sports briefs: Former Aggie Descalso inks deal with Colorado

    By Staff and wire reports | From Page: B8

     
    Westbrook, Durant lead Thunder past Kings

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B8 | Gallery

    .

    Features

    Some vegetables just can’t be beet

    By Julie Cross | From Page: A9 | Gallery

     
    .

    Arts

    .

    Business

    .

    Obituaries

    Rena Sylvia Smilkstein

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

     
    .

    Comics

    Comics: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

    By Creator | From Page: B6