Friday, January 22, 2010

The secrets of your DNA

I've been reading an interesting book called The Language of Life. It is by Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome project, which provided a complete sequence of human DNA.

As a geneticist, Collins has a lot to say about an emerging revolution in the way we treat disease. His prediction is that within the next five years, you will be able to obtain your own complete sequence of DNA, in the billions of base pairs long, for about one thousand dollars. The applications are virtually endless, from genealogical study to disease risk prediction.

At this point, commodity DNA testing does not sequence the entire DNA strand. Rather, it checks certain small portions with a well-established cause-and-effect relationship with important diseases like cancer or diabetes. Collins found that he had an increased risk of contracting adult-onset diabetes. He made some lifestyle changes to lower his risk.

To me, this is the key point about getting your DNA sequence. You can learn your predilection for horrible disease, and then do something about it. For instance, Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, learned that he was marked for Parkinson's disease and has a chance now to do something about it. As time goes on, and more important tests and markers are revealed, there will only be more reason to have your DNA on file to check against these new discoveries.

This immediately hit my computer scientist brain though. I hate typing my password into the third-party Blogger interface. Who can I trust with the secrets of my DNA? How will it be kept encrypted and secure? How will I provide access to it for medical testing or genetic studies without my insurance company crapping on me? How can anyone anonymize information that distinguishes me from everyone else on the planet?

Some bright people are going to solve these problems. It's an intriguing area, and at least some of it can be studied before the first consumer DNA sequencer opens for business.