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DNA has begun to reveal relationships and connections that were previously impossible to find. Children finding parents and siblings, fourth cousins finding each other and naming their illusive connecting ancestor, and that smidgen of African American heritage helping confirm that old family story. But genetic genealogists are also able to use the same DNA test to discover more about their personal health.
While our DNA test results seem customized to our interest in our heritage and ancestors, what happens in the laboratory is actually used in many different industries. Most companies are using a slightly customized version of an off-the-shelf technology. This means that the test contains information on not just our relationships and origins, but things useful to other kinds of researchers. Another big industry using this technology are those researching the effects of genetics on our health.
According to SNPedia, our testing companies test a significant number of health related DNA data points (data DNA points are called SNPs). Those SNPs are part of a special database run by the National Center for Biotechnology Information called ClinVar. See the table below for more information about how many health related DNA markers our testing companies are currently testing.
|Reported on their Website
|Number of Health Reports
|Yes, AncestryDNA Traits
|Family Tree DNA
|Taken to partner Vitagene
However, just because they are testing them, doesn’t mean they are analyzing them. 23andMe charges an extra $100 if you are interested in a review of your health information, while AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA charge a smaller fee for a very modified view. Of the testing companies reporting health information, 23andMe is by far the most comprehensive as they report multiple kinds of health related findings: Traits and Wellness reports (the physical attributes you inherit from your parents), Health Conditions, and Carrier Status (meaning you have a DNA marker, but you might not have the ailment), while so far FTDNA and Ancestry have only ventured into Traits and Wellness categories.
Family Tree DNA
Family Tree DNA provides trait and wellness reports through partner company Vitagene. After paying the $49 you are led through a series of surveys about your health and lifestyle and then provides four kinds of reports: Genetic Traits, Diet, Supplement, and Exercise. No real surprise that it seems their main goal is to sell you nutrition supplements, but they do actually have a nice traits report, with a decent interface and interesting information about the interactions between your lifestyle and health.
AncestryDNA recently jumped into this heath arena with their release of AncestryDNA Traits where, for $10, you can see how your DNA influences 18 traits including things like eye color, hair curliness, and if you like cilantro. It is simple, straightforward, and a bit underwhelming as you likely already know all of the traits they are testing for, and they don’t seem to be providing very much additional insight.
A similar trait report is being offered by a company called Gene Heritage, for a slightly less $8 per person. Gene Heritage’s reports are actually much easier to understand, much more informative, and have the added ability to let you see how your genes have been inherited back to a grandparent level (if you have had grandparent, parent, and grandchild tested, that is). To access Gene Heritage, you need to have had your DNA tested at any major DNA testing company, and you can upload your data to their website.
One of the biggest strengths of Gene Heritage is how they rate each trait to let you know how much your genetic code factors into the situation. Their rating of Major, Moderate, and Minor remind us that we do not want to put undue emphasis on a genetic marker that has only a casual association with a particular outcome. For example, in this image you can see that I got the “off” version of the sprinting gene. My dad actually had an “on” version, but did he give it to me?! Nope. That’s ok, for two reasons. First, you can see that this gene is only a “Minor Influence” in whether or not I can run fast. And second, and most important, my sister didn’t get the fast gene either!
Promethease is another company looking to provide health interpretation for your DNA test. For $5, you can get a very comprehensive, but very technical (read: overwhelming) report. Promethease is really meant for science people, as the reports are very difficult to interpret. But they do cover a variety of health conditions including macular degeneration and heart disease, and drug responses to common prescriptions for blood thinners and mental health. All this is based on the DNA you had tested at any major company. Promethease does not let you see or track inheritance, it is just a tool to show you what the academic literature has to say about your health.
Similar to Promethease, but a little easier to swallow, is Livewello.com. It is by far the most comprehensive offering, giving you not only reports about traits, heath, and drug response, but a way to track health history, a secure chat room, resource materials, and premium reports. For access to Livewello you pay $19.99, with the option to purchase additional reports later.
What the future holds
There is no question that we are just at the beginning of this road to using our genetic information to impact our health decisions. For now many of the services are anecdotal, but the few serious offerings give us insight into what is ahead, and help us to be aware that our DNA can give us all kinds of answers, so we better know what we are asking.