The Bill and Melinda Gates letter includes an exciting scientific breakthrough: from 23andMe DNA kit samples, scientists have found a potential link between premature births and how bodies use the mineral selenium. The rising availability of such home testing DNA kits – and the sheer amount of data they provide – is an opportunity for a quantum leap in new discoveries. These discoveries aren’t just for the scientific community; they’ll have tremendous impacts on the challenges we’re facing within public health and global development.
More Access and More Data
The decreasing cost of at-home DNA kits means they are increasingly accessible. In 2003 the first sequencing of the whole human genome cost roughly $2.7 billion. A 23andMe kit to genotype a DNA sample costs roughly $199. The cost of this test is now 0.0000007% of the test in 2003.
Over 18 million people had used a DNA testing kit by the end of 2018. This sample size for genetic material is now becoming scientifically substantial and relevant. We should expect the frequency of breakthroughs to increase proportionally, which means our opportunity to eradicate genetic diseases will increase.
Melinda Gates says about preterm births that she “can’t think of anything else that affects 10 percent of people in every part of the world but gets so little attention.” It is often the case that in the most disadvantaged and developing economies, those with chronic or incurable diseases are the least visible. Any technology or understanding that can provide access to therapies and diminishes suffering will drive a significant shift in the quality of life for these people.
23andMe is an example of a technology that is only becoming cheaper, and therefore more accessible, not just to those of us who are curious about our lineage, but to those who need the lifesaving knowledge that comes from this growing pool of data. This gives me hope that new breakthroughs and insights from such tools will be able to impact those most in need, faster than ever before.
An Exciting Future
The Gates are also clear about what we don’t know. In their specific study around selenium, it’s only been discovered that selenium likely plays a role, but we don’t yet know how. The real issues in genomic disease is how genes might be triggered, and proteins produced, that drive the ability to cope or thrive within a certain chemical environment. But the sheer amount of people now contributing data, because the technology is so much cheaper and available, only means we’ll continue to have more information to make more breakthroughs, faster.
We must be cautious and very intentional about how we use our forthcoming knowledge, but the potential for impacting lives around the world, especially those most marginalized, is growing exponentially.
A Fair Warning
The availability of this data around the human genome also raises a powerful question, much like we heard surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the 1990s. There are those who will ask “How dare you play god?!” There are many concerns around the privacy and current use of this new data, and the voices of those seeking to protect the role of a single creator are getting louder. Equally, the desire for “designer” offspring and diminished health insurance premiums will inevitably place pressure to use this data for unethical reasons.
However, if we are able to properly harness the critically important information that genetic tests provide, the impacts and benefits to those that cope daily with these illnesses – and those that care for them, along with the economies that attempt to help them – would be truly significant.
Rhys Morris is Managing Partner, EMEA at Palladium.