Shane BarnhillFriday,12 April 2013

The Snap:

In the sci-fi movie The Matrix, Neo, the story’s protagonist, is offered a chance to take one of two colored pills. The pills — one blue, one red, and offered by a character named Morpheusrepresent a choice between willfully living in ignorance (via the blue pill) and reaching a new level of awareness about the world (via the red pill), one that may even be painful and unpleasant.

Although there are no red and blue pills in reality, the recent decrease in the cost of personalized genetic testing services do present a similar choice. Perhaps the most well-known of these services is 23andMe, which, according to its website, “is a DNA analysis service providing information and tools for individuals to learn about and explore their DNA.” 23andMe customers first provide a saliva sample, and in return, they receive personalized reports regarding disease risks, gene mutations, markers for inheritable diseases, and more. All for the low cost of $99.

The Download:

I recently made a decision to opt for the red pill — although it wasn’t an easy choice. After receiving a 23andMe kit as a Christmas present, it took me nearly three full months to work up the nerve to actually provide a saliva sample and send it to 23andMe for analysis.

For anyone who has registered with 23andMe, this delay is probably understandable. 23andMe warns new kit holders that while the company takes security seriously and employs good security practices, the results of a major security breach could be catastrophic for its customers. After all, insurance companies would undoubtedly love to download the hacked genetic data and health risks of thousands of individuals for use in future coverage decisions.

But even more ominously, 23andMe provides a warning when you start to register a kit that basically says, “Once you walk through this door, there is no going back, and you may not like what is on the other side.” Indeed, this warning is eerily similar to the aforementioned pill choice offered by Morpheus in The Matix, who cautions Neo: “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Well, I have walked through that door, and in about 6 to 8 weeks (the time it takes for 23andMe to test a sample and provide results), I will have access to 248 reports detailing my risk factors for 120 diseases, pinpointing whether I carry up to 50 genetic mutations, and specifying the likelihood that I might react adversely to a variety of medications.

My newfound awareness may prove frightening, but at least I will be able to make data-driven preventative healthcare choices. And I predict that the use of personal data for customized health planning will soon become commonplace. As prices continue to fall, how could it not? There is a big difference between knowing about what is generally considered “good for you,” and knowing what is specifically important for you relative to others. As Morpheus said in The Matrix (yes, I’m beating a dead horse here, but this is the last one): “Don’t think you are, know you are. Come on.”

Hat Tips: IMDB, Wikipedia, 23andMe, Image Credit: Flickr

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  1. […] 23andMe’s DNA analysis service after receiving a testing kit as a Christmas present. While it wasn’t an easy decision to join 23andMe — after all, the service warns prospective members that they may find out […]

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