While environment and nurture do play a significant role in health, an individual’s risk of many diseases can be predicted with genetic tests. While you may live a healthy, active lifestyle with a balanced diet, information in your personal genetic code could expose you to an increased risk of certain diseases.
In 2008, Google co-founder Sergey Brin discovered that he had an abnormality in one of his genes that increased his risk of Parkinson’s disease. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Sergey said, “If I felt it was guaranteed to cure Parkinson’s disease, a check for a billion dollars would be the easiest one I have written.” He continued, “Pretty much everybody in the world has or will have some serious condition. How much is it worth to you to have that condition be potentially curable?”
Brin first found out about his genetic abnormality through a service called 23andMe. Brin’s mother, a NASA scientist, first started to suffer from the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease 1997 when she was 49. Unfortunately for Brin, he shares this same genetic defect with his mother.
As of now, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. This debilitating illness affects approximately one million people in the United States. An estimated one percent of people over age 60 will be diagnosed with the disease. According to one study released in 2009, Parkinson’s disease costs approximately $10.8 billion a year for the one million people suffering from this disease.
While Sergey can’t do anything at this time to prevent the risk of Parkinson’s disease, he does try to maintain a lifestyle that will minimize his personal risk. Several times a week, Brin goes swimming to maintain a thin, athletic build. He also consumes several cups of green tea every day; several studies have shown that the polyphenols found in green tea may reduce the onset of this motor disorder.
Brin’s increased risk for Parkinson’s disease has led him to donate millions of dollars to various Parkinson’s disease research initiatives. As of 2012, Brin has donated over $132 million to groups like the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. This effort has led to a set of DNA data comprising 7,000 patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Brin believes that this information can be used to target the core genetic causes behind this debilitating movement disorder.
In his Bloomberg Interview, Brain said, “I was very surprised [that my genes carry an increased risk for Parkinson’s disease.] I wasn’t alarmed. I felt empowered. I felt I could invest in the research.” As a Google co-founder, Brin has a net worth of $23 billion. With over $132 million in investments towards Parkinson’s research so far, Brin has the chance to find a cure for Parkinson’s within his lifetime.
Like Parkinson’s, many common diseases can’t be cured with currently-available technology. However, learning about your personal genetic risks can be a great way to make sure you’re making the right life choices to minimize the risk of future illness. In addition, finding out about your personal risk for a genetic disease at an early age may spur you, like Brin, to donate towards a cure.
23andMe is a personal genetic sequencing company. Like Sergey Brin, you can use 23andMe to learn about your personal risk factors based on your unique genome. However, it’s important to understand that 23andMe can’t predict the future. It doesn’t have the ability to tell you how or when you will die. Instead, it will provide probability estimates of you contracting a certain disease based on your genome. For example, you may find out that you carry a 20 percent chance of contracting a certain disease, while other people of your ethnicity only carry a five percent chance of the same illness.
It’s important to understand that 23andMe doesn’t just look at risk factors for different diseases. In addition to disease risk factors, you’ll receive drug response predictions, ancestry data and tools to help you analyze this data.
23andMe is not an expensive service. While 23andMe initially charged thousands of dollars to sequence an individual’s genome, the price has dropped since then to an up-front fee of $99, plus a $5 a month subscription for 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service. The company also has annual sales that drop the price of this service even lower.
When you order a genotyping kit from 23andMe, you’ll receive a specialized kit with a saliva storage container. After providing a saliva sample, you simply mail the kit back to the company. Through its specialized process, 23andMe isolates and creates copies of DNA contained in your saliva. Once the sample is “amplified” through this process, the company genotypes your DNA to see if it corresponds with any genes associated with disease.
23andMe uses single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNIPS) to determine your risk of contracting genetic diseases. Out of the 10 million SNIPS in the human body, 23andMe sequences approximately 10 percent of them. While sequencing one million SNIPS may seem like information overload, only a small number of these SNIPS are used to generate your personalized report. Since researchers have been studying the human genome for only a few decades, there are still many parts of it that we don’t understand. However, researchers are continually learning more about how certain SNIPS correspond with certain disease states.
With 23andMe’s monthly subscription service, you’ll receive personalized information on how new peer-reviewed research sheds light on your SNIPS. When new information is available, the company conducts an internal review to determine its relevancy. If 23andMe feels that the information is helpful, a synopsis of it will be provided in your personalized report.
For high-power leaders like Google’s Sergey Brin, waiting around for a personalized monthly report from 23andMe may be too slow. Fortunately, the company also gives you access to your raw genomic data. Armed with this information, you can quickly use your genetic data to find out your health risks based on the latest peer-reviewed research.
One powerful third-party resource for users of the 23andMe service is SNPedia. SNPedia is a wiki like Wikipedia; instead of providing encyclopedic knowledge, SNPedia is a database of the latest news in the field of genetics. Each of your SNPs can be cross-referenced through SNPedia to find out your personal risk factors for many diseases, psychological disorders and more. By analyzing your SNIPS through SNPedia, you can quickly find out lots of information about your health. Here is a list of some of the popular SNIPS available at SNPedia.
Commonly-Searched SNIPS at SPedia