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Genetic Testing Gets Personal

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, movers and shakers lined up to spit into test tubes -- the first step to having snippets of their DNA analyzed by 23andMe, a personalized gene-testing company that for $999 promises to help people "search and explore their genomes."

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Those wanting an even more complete analysis of their biological inheritance can turn to Knome, a Cambridge, Mass., company that, for $350,000, will spell out all 3 billion letters of their DNA code -- an unparalleled opportunity, the company says, to "Know thyself."

For singles on tighter budgets and with narrower interests, there is ScientificMatch.com, which says that its $995 genetic test will help clients find DNA-compatible mates who will smell sexier to them, have more orgasms and produce healthier children.

This is the world of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, a peculiar mix of modern science, old-fashioned narcissism and innovative entrepreneurialism, all made possible by the government-sponsored Human Genome Project.

More than 20 companies today offer "personalized genomics" tests that promise to help clients discern from their DNA what diseases they are likely to get, whether they are shy or adventurous, even their propensity to become addicted to drugs. A growing number bypass doctors and deal directly with consumers.

The trend has critics warning that the market is becoming rife with hype. The field is effectively free of regulatory oversight, watchdogs note, and much of the science behind the results is still sketchy.

But backers of these enterprises say they are pioneering nothing less than a medical and cultural revolution. With each person who adds his or her DNA to the companies' high-security databases, they say, links between specific gene variants, health conditions and behavioral traits are getting documented, speeding discoveries about biology, identity and destiny.

"We call it consumer-enabled research," said Linda Avey, co-founder of 23andMe, based in Mountain View, Calif. "It's about changing the paradigm of how research is done."

It is also about self-discovery and a new kind of social networking, as "members" -- as some companies call them -- learn about their DNA details and share them with others.

"We envision a new type of community where people will come together around specific genotypes, and these artificial barriers of country and race will start to break down," said Anne Wojcicki, who with Avey co-founded 23andMe.

"I think people will really get into it," said George Church, the Harvard geneticist who co-founded Knome and founded the not-for-profit Personal Genome Project, which will compare the genomes of 100,000 people willing to make their DNA public. "I think this is going to connect people clear around the world."

Gene Chips Slash Costs

Personalized medicine, the detection of people's individual health risks and the tailoring of preventive strategies and therapies just for them, has been a buzzword for years. But it remained elusive until technological advances allowed researchers to scan huge stretches of human DNA quickly and at relatively modest expense.


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