Stephane Budel has an idea for an app, and it goes like this. You get your DNA sequenced to find out which comic book superhero you are.
Now bear with us for a minute: The test, Budel explains, could look at the similarity between genes found in both humans and spiders to give you a Spiderman score—and other genes for a Hulk score and so on. “It gives you your breakdown, like you’re 30 percent Superman, 20 percent Ironman, and 50 percent the Hulk,” says Budel, who has been kicking the idea around with Eric Lakin, a former colleague at DeciBio, the life sciences market research and consulting firm where Budel is partner.
We are, to be clear, talking about fictional superheroes and the idea for a hypothetical app. But Budel really is serious. (“I’m telling you, this app is going to get developed and whoever does it is going to make a lot of money.”) As the economics of DNA sequencing change, consumer genetic tests aimed at lifestyle and wellness—rather than health—are a burgeoning unregulated market. These DNA tests won’t tell you about your cancer risk, but they might give you wine based on your taste genes or suggest personalized exercise regimens.
What these kinds of DNA test start to resemble are magazine quizzes or horoscopes. At times, the science connecting DNA sequence and test result is just as shaky. And in the case of superheroes, well, it’s an explicit leap into fantasy. “Fun” was the word I kept hearing to describe these tests. We once looked to the stars to amuse, enlighten, and guide us; now we can look to DNA.
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First thing, you’re not probably going to shell out $2000 for a DNA test that’s just for fun. But might you pay $200 or $20? The world of lifestyle genetic tests can only exist because sequencing DNA has gotten so much cheaper.
Technological innovation alone hasn’t driven the cost down enough though. Sequencing all the gene-coding regions in a person’s DNA still costs several hundred dollars. (23andMe and AncestryDNA offer genotyping—which is like spot checking specific locations of DNA—rather than sequencing, so their tests are much cheaper.) So in August 2015, Illumina, the San Diego-based company that dominates the market on making DNA sequencing machines, announced it along with others was investing $100 million into Helix, a new company that would create an app store for genetic tests.
Helix eats the cost of sequencing a customer’s DNA, so its partners can focus on developing applications. Its partners so far include National Geographic, which currently offers an ancestry test for $149.95, and Vinome, a wine club that sends three personalized bottles and a DNA test for $149 per quarter. Helix also has partners like Mount Sinai and the Mayo Clinic in the more traditional health space, but as it says in one announcement, the company is casting a wide net for tests in areas including “genealogy, fitness, diet, lifestyle.” Helix then gets a cut when customers pay for each app. For Illumina, finding new uses for DNA sequencing would also expand the market for its sequencing machines.
This business model democratizes the DNA test market and allows companies to offer cheaper individual tests. Budel envisions, for example, the genetic superheroes app in Helix one day.
When Helix announced its first batch of partners last October, Vinome got some of the most press because—well, duh, it was about wine. But not all of that press was flattering. Some scientists were skeptical how much DNA test could say much about one’s affinity for chardonnay, and one geneticist called it “completely silly.” In defending his company, Vinome head Ronnie Andrews pointed out to me that Vinome also surveys its customers on their taste preferences—and uses those results in addition to 10 genetic variants to come up with its wine preference algorithm.
There are indeed genes that code for your ability to detect certain chemical compounds, like the bitterness in broccoli, but these genes do not necessarily determine preference. “I can tell based on your DNA what you’ll likely to be able to taste, but how much you like something is a different matter,” says Danielle Reed, a taste researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center. It’s not clear what a DNA test would add on top of a taste survey. Do you need a DNA test to tell you that you don’t like broccoli? Vinome says it has conducted studies that the genetic variants make its algorithm more accurate, and it plans to publish in peer-reviewed journals.
Maybe that’s all besides the point though. Most of us aren’t that good at detecting the subtle differences in fermented grape juice anyway. So much of our enjoyment of wine is the narrative around it. A family-owned vineyard passed down from generation to generation is a story. A bottle of wine chosen specifically for you, based on the DNA in your cells is another kind of story. “If the story resonates with people and the experience of drinking wine you know has been matched to your DNA adds to your pleasure,” says wine economics writer Robin Goldstein, “they would be adding real value to the consumer experience.”
Andrews uses the same word: “experience.” “We’re providing an experience,” he says. “In wine, our whole world is about experience, and genetics propels that experience.”
And telling people a wine is specifically matched to their DNA could actually make them enjoy the wine more. In psychology, it’s called the Barnum effect, named after the famed circus man P.T. Barnum. When you give someone a personality test or a horoscope, they tend to hone in on the accurate parts and forget the rest. The horoscope seems uncannily accurate. And there are ways to make it resonate even more strongly. “People tend to say it’s more true if there’s some sort of claim it was based on some elaborate specific test that is uniquely pegged you,” says Peter Glick, a psychologist at Lawrence University. And what is more specific to you than your DNA?
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Andrews used to work in cancer diagnostics, and the idea for Vinome literally came up over a bottle of wine at a cancer conference. When I asked why he decided to move to consumer genetics, he answered, “We’re bringing applications that will be fun and exciting, and it’ll allow us to do so on a much faster path.” The team behind Vinome also formed Exploragen, a company looking for more applications for taste and smell genetics.
Lifestyle genetics tests have the advantage regulatory barriers that are way lower than those for medical tests. When the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on 23andMe in 2013, it put all companies that want to provide information about disease risks via genetic tests on alert.
The FDA hasn’t moved to regulate DNA tests in the lifestyle space. Nor has it, so far, gone after DNA tests for wellness—which answer questions like what kind of diet you should eat or what kind of exercise you should do based on your genetic predispositions. STAT reporter Rebecca Robbins recently took 5 such tests, and they gave her, in some cases, directly contradictory information about how she should exercise. The rest of it was uselessly vague. “Scouring the reports, I felt sometimes like I was reading a horoscope. I looked for signs of myself that I could recognize,” she wrote. (None of the tests in this case were offered through Helix.)
In 2008, an European Journal of Human Genetics article titled, “Genetic horoscopes: is it all in the genes? Points for regulatory control of direct-to-consumer genetic testing” argued for caution in offering genetic tests for risk of complex disease. This idea that DNA can be hard to read as the stars, as vulnerable to the human tendency to see patterns in meaningless data, can apply when you’re talking about cancer or exercise or wine. But the genetic basis of cancer has, at this point, been a lot better studied than the genetic basis for different exercise routines or wine preferences.
That’s not to dismiss real information that can be gleaned from genetics. In some cases, single genes lead to a clear outcomes, but in most cases, many genes affect a complex trait and in most of those cases, scientists don’t have a completely grasp the complexity. But still, we look to DNA for answers, our desire to understand outstripping our actual understanding of it. A genetic test for Spiderman just takes the idea to a fantastical extreme.