I first heard about "genes" when I was six years old. At dinner one night, I heard my mom tell my sister, "It's in your genes."
I was confused because she was not wearing jeans.
I was a bit hesitant to ask about the meaning as I had just recently asked my mom what a prostate was and regretted knowing the answer. But I asked my mom what she meant anyway. She explained that there was a code inside me. That code plus my environment made me who I am. I was amazed. A secret code! In me! This was far better than any mystery puzzle I could have imagined and I was hooked.
Twenty seven years later, 23andMe was founded with the revolutionary idea that any individual, not just scientists or physicians, should have access to their own genetic data. Information is power and the information is yours.
People want access to their genetic information because it is fascinating and meaningful. A few small changes in your DNA can turn your eyes blue, make you lactose intolerant or put some curl in your hair. Your DNA can also tell you that you are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes or at significant risk for blood clots. You could learn that your ancestors were not just from Europe but China, and that you are a descendant of Ghengis Khan. Genetics is fascinating and over time will become even more fascinating and meaningful.
Billions of dollars have been put into genetic research. In a decade, we have gone from having the first human genome sequenced for $3 billion to having genetic information accessible to any individual who wants it. Every day, new discoveries are being made that could impact you. It's an incredibly exciting time in genetics. I have been frustrated, however, by the slow adoption of genetics by the medical community. Genetics gives you the opportunity to prevent disease rather than just treating it once it develops. The challenge in the current healthcare system is that there is little incentive to prevent disease. If I develop type 2 diabetes, the whole healthcare system knows how to deal with it, treat it and profit from it. But if I discover I am at high risk for type 2 diabetes, I change my diet and exercise patterns and successfully prevent it, no one profits but me. All of us would rather prevent disease rather than effectively treat it but the current system is not set up to encourage that. We would all like to see the system changed, including many healthcare practitioners and commercial healthcare executives, but it's not clear how. It is important that we figure out financial motivations for preventative care if we want to change the system.
Over 125,000 individuals have been gentoyped by 23andMe. It has been hugely rewarding to hear health and ancestry stories from customers who have had their lives changed by getting access to their genetic information. Individuals have reunited with family members, discovered the roots of health problems and taken proactive steps to reduce disease risk and be healthier. In a few cases, customers feel we've saved their lives.
I feel giddy about the potential genetic discoveries in the coming decade. It's an incredibly exciting time. Questions that have circled in my head for 32 years may soon get more clarity. How does this simple code make me, me? How does my environment influence my DNA? And most importantly, now that I am in my late 30s with two kids, how will my DNA influence the health of all of us? Discoveries are happening every day and I am thankful to the company and my co-workers that I have the ability to watch my own genetic puzzle get decoded right before my eyes.
Anne Wojcicki is the daughter of a particle physicist and a journalism teacher. She grew up loving science. She is also co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, a leading personal genetics company that enables anyone to get their genetic ancestry information and more than 200 health and trait reports based on their DNA for just $99 with $9 monthly subscription.