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An ‘app store for your genome’ exists and we should be slightly scared

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Our DNA was the most mysterious thing that existed in every single one of us before the Human Genome Project. Then companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA opened up a whole new world where anyone with a couple extra bucks can find out exactly what they’re made up of.

Now a San Francisco startup called Helix wants to make a sort of app store with all of this personal genetic information.

Helix collects data on nearly 22,000 of your genes to help you make decisions about your fitness, nutrition, entertainment options, and more. Unlike other DNA sequencing companies, Helix only requires you to complete one saliva test that can be used for a countless number of products. And the company launched a digital marketplace for your DNA on Monday. “An app store for your genome” is how Helix is branding the new project.

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Here’s how it works. When you order a product, Helix will send you a DNA collection kit. All you have to do is take a quick cheek swab and send it back. Your DNA then gets sequenced and stored in a database to be shared with other partner companies later on. This means the weeks-long wait for additional DNA sequencing tests is over.

The one-time DNA sequencing kit costs you $80 upfront. Additional products will run you an additional fee of $20 to hundreds of dollars on top of that.

 

IMAGE: HELIX

It’s definitely an extremely cool concept. You can buy a wine explorer that curates wine lists to your DNA-based taste preferences. You can even try an athlete comparison that uses your height and genetic code to see how you’d stack up with the elite. There are currently 20 tests you can take just from that one sequencing kit.

The concept is sort of like 3D printed gear for athletes. You give a company the inside scoop on your body so they can create a product that will make you more efficient at something. But when it comes right down to it, both projects involve you giving away a personal biometric to a company that revolves around making money.

One of the main concerns here is privacy.

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“I do think there could be some touchy legal issues, such as insurance companies dropping patients with genetic disease alleles.”

Helix claims that privacy is the number one priority and it won’t sell, share, or analyze your DNA data without your permission. But no promise is airtight, especially from a company holding the information that everyone else wants to get their hands on.

If your information becomes available to health insurance companies without your permission, there’s a chance your rates could increase. Your DNA reveals if you have any genetic mutations or recessive genes that could potentially cause a problem in future generations. What if you’ve got the gene signaling to your doctors you’re susceptible to breast cancer or another disease. Does this give them the right to spike your rates on account of a pre-existing condition, even if you’re completely healthy now?

University of Wisconsin Evolutionary Genetics professor, Carol Eunmi Lee, helped to weigh in on the discussion.

“I do think there could be some touchy legal issues, such as insurance companies dropping patients with genetic disease alleles,” said Lee. “There have been recent news articles about the current administration wanting to make your genetic code a pre-existing condition.”

Lee also pointed to the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to our genetic code.

“We do not understand how individual genes (alleles) are affected by the genetic background (other genes). So, treating someone for an individual allele is dangerous,” said Lee. “The gene (allele) could have many different phenotypes depending on other genes, such as the other genes that regulate the expression of that individual gene.”

Lee thinks we are still quite far away from going on diets and making lifestyle choices based on the few genes for which we have identified functions. Especially without fully understanding how different genes interact with one another.

If you do sign up for this DNA app store, be sure to take your results and the products offered to you with a grain of salt. And remember that this blueprint to your very being is your most personal information making its way into a huge database — and if that gets in the wrong hands, there’s no unseeing it.

So whatever the case, you might want to think twice before signing up to hand your DNA over for the chance at receiving a tasty wine.

Molly Sequin

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