The kit consumers buy at pharmacies is a small rectangular cardboard box containing a set of instructions, a swab that looks like a cotton bud in plastic casing and a reply-paid envelope to send the DNA sample off.
I go so far as to open up my kit but it sits unused on my desk for three months as I weigh up whether I want to hand over my DNA to a startup.
In the United States the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into DNA firms 23AndMe and Ancestry.com over their policies for handling personal information and genetic data.
Doctor Jacqueline Savard, lecturer in health, ethics and professionalism at Deakin University, warns consumers should think carefully about taking a DNA test.
“Genetic information is relational, so when one individual gets tested they are revealing information about others they are related to,” she says. “When we think about privacy and data and where that data goes, it is often buried in the terms and conditions. You need to be aware that some companies have built into the terms and conditions that they will use the data elsewhere or that they have proprietary access to that data.”
The implications of this have been demonstrated in the US, where police have used data from DNA testing companies’ databases to identify criminals.
However MyDNA’s chief executive, Dr Lior Rauchberger, assures me the startup takes privacy and the security of genetic information very seriously.
“That is something we have to tackle head-on all the time and be very conscious of,” he says. “It is all about trust and our reputation, if we lose this we won’t have a business. Our position is, it is your DNA, you own it, it should never be shared with anyone without your explicit consent. Unlike many other operators who de-identify and onsell the data, we feel very strongly against that.”
Rauchberger says MyDNA provides the option for customers to ask for their DNA sample to be destroyed once their test results have been delivered.
“We are very transparent and obsessed with security and privacy,” he says.
Other consumers don’t share my qualms. More than 26 million people globally have shared their DNA with ancestry and health databases, according to figures compiled by the MIT Technology Review last year.
In Australia, MyDNA’s main competitor is US company MyHeritage, which also sells its kits here.
MyHeritage won’t give sales figures for Australia but a spokesperson says it has 3.75 million kits registered globally providing detailed ethnicity reports that map users’ ethnic and geographic origins, and DNA matches for finding relatives.
Rauchberger says MyDNA is turning over around $5 million a year and is on a “good trajectory” to double this over the next year.
His plan is that MyDNA will partner with gyms to provide diet and exercise regimens and even with health insurers.
“Genetics is really coming to the forefront but where there is a big gap and need is someone to translate the raw genetic data into a report that is meaningful and useful,” he says.
“Genetics offers an an opportunity to go from a world where it was trial-and-error to personalised prescribing. We have also moved into the very interesting and very expanding area of nutrition which is looking at how our genes influence how we process food and our appetite.”
Eventually, despite my misgivings, I decide to take the test. It’s painless and quick – I just wipe the cotton bud swab on the inside of my gums, then send it off in the post to MyDNA.
A few weeks later I receive an email and a link to my results.
I’m told I have a “a feisty little PPARG gene” which protects me against weight gain but warned not to “use this as an excuse to over-indulge in a deep-fried Snickers bar for dessert”.
Instead, MyDNA recommends a Mediterranean-style diet featuring olive oil and plant-based food.
The report reveals I “share the same gene variation as an Olympic sprinter”, which doesn’t quite accord with my experience at school and university, where I was always much better at distance running.
Mainly, though, my results are unsurprising and seem fairly generic.
It’s anti-climactic but also a relief to discover that while it’s recommended I reduce my overall caffeine intake, I can still benefit from a morning cup of coffee.
“People with your gene variation have experienced increased brain activity and mental alertness and improved reasoning, problem solving and reaction time from drinking coffee,” the report states.
Which is all the justification I need for taking an over-the-counter genetic test.
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Cara is the small business editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne