2009 January

Navigenics Introduces Physician Portal and Annual Insight Service

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 29, 2009 in DNA Products, DNA Testing

Consumers of genetic testing now have two new services to consider from Navigenics.

From the press release:

Navigenics’ Physician Portal

…Navigenics has developed the ability for physicians, with the approval of their patients, to receive and easily review patient genetic results online, with easy access to condition information, action steps, and original scientific research. Access to the physician portal is free to physicians who register their practices.

Annual Insight Service

Navigenics’ Annual Insight service retails for $499 and analyzes an individual’s genetic predisposition for ten common health conditions (nine each for men and women), including breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer and heart disease.

Annual Insight also includes one hour of genetic counseling and if the consumer chooses to upgrade, the cost can be applied to the more comprehensive Health Compass service that includes a genome-wide scan, 24/7 genetic counseling, and ongoing updates for $2500.

(>> Start a discussion!)


Eye on DNA Interview: Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh of RedTracer DNA Test for the Red Hair Gene, MC1R

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 26, 2009 in DNA in General

redhead In a world where parents can test their children for genetically-endowed academic and sports ability, no DNA test should come as a surprise. One of the most recent genetic testing product to be introduced is the RedTracer DNA Test at MyRedHairGene.com. For $119, an individual sample of DNAcan be tested for variants of the red hair gene, MC1R. For an analysis of two samples, the price is $214. I recently had the chance to interview Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh about RedTracer DNA.


Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh: First off I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about our new genetic test. We hope that this kind of fun genetics test will help people learn a little bit about themselves and get them excited about their genetics and genetics in general.

Hsien: What is the company’s motivation for offering the RedTracer DNA test?

Tzung-Fu: We were first introduced to MC1R gene variants and their association with red hair color by Dr. Barry Starr from the Tech Museum of Innovation at San Jose a few years ago. Back then, Dr. Starr was interested in a possible public project for looking at the diversity of MC1R gene variations among museum visitors in a classroom setting as a mean to bring awareness of genetic diversity to grade schoolers. The MC1R gene is a perfect marker because of its unusually high diversity and association with hair and skin colors. Even though the project did not materialize due to some logistical and budgetary issues, we kept the project going by analyzing several carrier families as well as performing occasional requests for such services. 

Many parents became aware of and got interested in red hair biology after having a redheaded baby. Similarly, Dr. Starr’s interest in the MC1R gene came about because one of his three children is a redhead. Our testing analyses confirmed that both he and his wife carry a red hair causing variant of the MC1R gene. Through this collaboration, we started getting requests from people who wanted to know if they inherited the red hair trait, what might be the chance of having a redheaded baby, etc. So we’ve known for awhile that some people were looking for such a service. We have the skill and resources to provide this service and we hope that by offering this test, we can draw people’s interests to general genetics.

Hsien: What are some medical implications for knowing whether a person is a carrier of the MC1R gene?

Tzung-Fu: You bring up a great point with this question. We all know about the dangers of skin cancer for people with fair skin that burns but doesn’t tan. What a lot of people don’t know is that being a carrier of a red variant of the MC1R gene can increase the risk for skin cancer even if the carrier has darker skin. One theory is that the increased risk happens because free radicals are made when sunlight hits the pigment responsible for red hair (phomelanin). These free radicals go on to damage DNA and ultimately cause cancer.

Hsien: In some parts of the world, redheads are discriminated against. Do you think some people might misuse the RedTracer DNA test? 

Tzung-Fu: People with red hair are discriminated in some places although at least here in the U.S., this discrimination has been disappearing rapidly. I am not sure how people might misuse this test against someone. No discrimination that I know of is state-based so it is unlikely to be used by governments as a skin color test might have been used in apartheid era in South Africa.

In fact, there are groups who are worried about the eventual extinction of redheads from the world. The risk is overblown as there will probably always be redheads in the world but a test like this might help carriers find each other to have red haired kids.

Hsien: Can you tell us more about the global database the company plans to establish?

Tzung-Fu: There are over 30 different MC1R variants reported so far. Only a handful of them are associated with red hair color. Among the rest, several of them have emerged as possibly ethnic or geographic specific. For example, Arg163Gln variant is present in 70% the East and Southeast Asian populations, but only ~4% in populations among Europeans. We hope a global database will help us accumulate enough data to identify ethnic specific variants and other new red hair causing variants.

We want to make this database freely available to people and other researchers and hope to establish an educational website around it. That way people can use their results and compare them to other people’s and maybe learn a bit about genetics.

Of course, everything will be anonymous and we will destroy DNA samples we get once the tests are completed.

Hsien: How does RedTracer DNA test compare with SNP analysis from other direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies?

Tzung-Fu: Most of the other DTC genetic tests currently available on the market look at a very small number of known SNPs, generally one or two. Other companies that offer whole genome scan analyses (e.g., 23andme, etc) rely on assaying SNPs featured on microchips. Often these chips were designed based on known SNPs listed in public domain (HapMap database, for example). The RedTracer DNA test will give customers 954 base pairs of the coding region of their MC1R gene. Our test will provide definitive information about carrier status and not simply the odds of being a carrier based on a certain SNP. Plus, who wouldn’t want to know what all the 1900 of their MC1R DNA letters look like?

To learn more about the RedTracer DNA Test, visit their website at MyRedHairGene.com.


On a related note, AskMen.com recently shared this tidbit about red hair:

Redheads may be aliens

There’s a conspiracy theory that redheads are alien-human hybrids. Think about it: Why did several kings and queens of Europe have red hair even though, percentage-wise, redheads are fairly rare? Why do so many Southies have red hair and speak a different language than other Boston locals?

It sounds crazy, but carrottops do have biological differences other than appearance. Redheaded women bleed longer, which is why doctors make special preparations for them in childbirth. They also have the smallest hair count on their heads, about 90,000 as opposed to 140,000 on people with blond and brown hair. That’s why Kick a Ginger Day began, just to keep these possible aliens on their toes.

via Neatorama

Photo credit: i,max on Flickr



Books About DNA: The Crime of Reason by Robert B. Laughlin

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 15, 2009 in Books About DNA

From Stanford Magazine about Robert B. Laughlin’s new book, The Crime of Reason: And the Closing of the Scientific Mind:

Just wait until enough people read Laughlin’s suggestion that, in addition to the open announcements of cloned animals, “It is very likely that we also got Hal (or Heather) the human. . . . There was, however, no public announcement of a cloned human, presumably because of the storm of public outrage that would have ensued.”

Is he serious? “I cannot prove it,” says Laughlin, throwing in a charming smile while emphasizing that the speculation is scientifically sound.

(>> Start a discussion!)


What does DNA mean to you?

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 14, 2009 in Meaning of DNA

dna coffee cup cozy Before I went on maternity leave, I asked fellow DNA Network members to share their thoughts on what DNA means to them. Here are a few more that I didn’t get around to posting earlier.

Jonathan Eisen of The Tree of Life:

DNA is something to sequence.

Misha Angrist of Genome Boy:

DNA: the last three digits of my cell phone number

(Bunch of smart alecks!)

Reader Khushi:

To me, DNA means a way to Demystify Nature’s Accuracy and the interdependence of the two to unfold the hidden secrets.

What does DNA mean to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments and you may be featured here at Eye on DNA!

Photo credit: Coffee cup cozy from evilsciencechick



Genetically Modified Organisms Bring in the Cash

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 13, 2009 in Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

I’ve got a new post up at What’s new in life science research over at Scienceblogs:

It’s All About Money [GMO and Profits]

money food

(>> Start a discussion!)


Parenting Children Using Genetic Tests

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 11, 2009 in DNA Testing

troll dolls Trolls have been around these here parts. They’re upset because I wrote disparaging remarks about a particular company marketing DNA tests for detecting a child’s “innate talent.” But contrary to their accusations that I deny the genetic basis of behavior, predisposition, and temperament, I actually believe that many, if not almost all, human traits are influenced by genetic make-up.

My problem with genetic testing companies that target parents seeking to hothouse their children is that the biological mechanism of the few behavioral genes that have been identified are poorly understood. In addition, we have limited data on how these genes interact with other genes and with environmental exposures. Parents who think they will raise the next Bill Gates or Mozart by purchasing a test that focuses on a limited panel of genotypes are sadly deluded.

Last year I shared a Steven Pinker quote from Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist that I think about all the time when parenting my own children:

With constitutional factors (genes and chance) being important but invisible, people tend to blur cause and effect in thinking back on supposedly formative childhood vignettes. …Rather than childhood experiences causing us to be who we are, who we are causes our childhood experiences.

This Sunday’s New York Times features My Genome, My Self – Steven Pinker Gets to the Bottom of his own Genetic Code in which Dr. Pinker points out that no matter how parents contrive to create the perfect environment for their children, when the children become adults, they will most likely gravitate towards experiences that suit their innate genetic tendencies. Would this be an argument for or against genetic testing in childhood?

A common finding is that the effects of being brought up in a given family are sometimes detectable in childhood, but that they tend to peter out by the time the child has grown up. That is, the reach of the genes appears to get stronger as we age, not weaker. Perhaps our genes affect our environments, which in turn affect ourselves. Young children are at the mercy of parents and have to adapt to a world that is not of their choosing. As they get older, however, they can gravitate to the microenvironments that best suit their natures.

Of course every parents has the right, and the power, to subject their children to genetic testing. In some cases, these tests may predict future debilitating diseases. And with these results, parents can help children live healthier lives with preventive lifestyle changes. Such is the power of genetic testing.

When it comes to genetic testing for academic, musical, or athletic talent, however, the results are far more ambiguous. Not only will the child be directly impacted by the results, the rest of the family will be impacted as well. Say parents scrimped and saved to get their child tested so they can make sure she becomes a success in life and help guarantee the family’s financial security. If the cost of the test plus other enrichment courses suggested by the test results impinge on the family’s overall well-being and lifestyle, it’s possible the investment may not be worth it. Or what if it turns out the child has a very average genetic profile? Would the parents be less likely to devote any time or effort into raising her?

Regardless, a child who supposedly has genes for high IQ may very well also have the trollism gene that relegates him to being a low-EQ jerk. Hardly a marker of future success. And as Peggy pointed out, genetic testing companies that target parents most likely will not include negative genes in any report. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. Unless you’re a troll, that is.



The DNA Network Now on Yahoo! Pipes

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 11, 2009 in DNA in General

As I previously mentioned, The DNA Network RSS feed on Feedburner has been b0rked for some time. I just finished entering all the feeds of member blogs into Yahoo! Pipes so you should be able to read everyone’s posts at one go.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Go to The DNA Network Yahoo! Pipes page

2. Click on List

3. Read as-is or subscribe to the RSS feed

Please let me know if you see anything amiss and I will try my best to fix it!

NB: DNAbloggers.com has also been forwarded to Yahoo! Pipes.

(1 comment)


Eye on DNA Links for 9 January 2009

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 9, 2009 in Eye on DNA Headlines

Thanks to the following sites for linking to Eye on DNA recently! It’s good to be back.

Also, congratulations to Dr. Val on her move to Better Health. Check out her interview with Dr. Joanne Armstrong, senior medical director for Aetna, and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, about the current state of genetic testing. Here’s an excerpt:

Dr. Val: In your view, what are some legitimate and appropriate genetic tests?

Dr. Armstrong: There are about 1200 genetic tests available now, and most of them are not medically appropriate or clinically valid. “Medically appropriate” tests have a few common characteristics: 1) they have to be useful for the direct treatment or prevention of an illness. Some tests on the market are medically trivial – they test for things like eye color for example. 2) The information from the test should affect the course of treatment of the disease or condition, and 3) treatment should improve the outcome of the disease.  Those are the characteristics of a genetic test that would be useful or appropriate in a healthcare setting.

There are 100s of useful and appropriate tests, and they’re used for the prediction of diseases like hereditary colon cancer, breast cancer and its recurrence, and metabolic diseases that affect people as infants.



Testing Children for Sporting Ability Genes

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 8, 2009 in DNA Testing

track and field Word of warning if you’re thinking about “encouraging” your child to take up a sport based on his/her genetic test results.

In February 2008, a 15-year-old Singaporean boy committed suicide by jumping from his family’s 11th floor apartment. He had become a track and field star at his secondary school and was being pressured to continue the extra-curricular activity even though he wanted to pursue drama instead.

Parents walk a tightrope every day. We either feel that we’re too soft on our children or that we pressure them too much. Push them too little and they may fail to achieve their full potential. Push them too much and they rebel and go the opposite way, sometimes ending in tragedy.

With genetic test results in hand, parents may feel tempted to wave it in the child’s face and say, “But you can’t give up! Your destiny is here. You have two copies of the ACTN3 gene. You were born to be a track and field star.”

But sometimes, what’s in your genes isn’t in your heart. I’d rather my children followed their heart.



State Laws Governing Genetic Discrimination

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 7, 2009 in DNA and the Law

illinois health Following the signing into law of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) in May 2008, Illinois lawmakers also want to make it illegal for businesses to discriminate against their employees based on DNA test results.

Why do states need to pass their own laws when a national law already exists? According to the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Genetic Discrimination Fact Sheet:

Before the federal law was passed, many states had passed laws against genetic discrimination. The degree of protection from these laws varies widely among the different states. The federal law sets a minimum standard of protection that must be met in all states. It does not weaken the protections provided by any state law.

According to a table compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) of current state laws regarding the use of genetic information in determining health insurance, Illinois already prohibits insurance companies from:

  • Using genetic information to establish rules for eligibility
  • Requiring genetic tests/genetic information
  • Using genetic information for risk selection or risk classification purposes
  • Disclosing information without informed consent

States that so far have no laws in place against the use of genetic information in health insurance include:

  • Mississippi
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington

NCSL also has information on other state genetics laws including those pertaining to employment, frozen embryos, and genetic privacy. Their Genetics Legislation Database also has searchable information on genetics bills considered in state legislatures from 2004 to present.

If you live in the U.S., how does your state fare on genetic nondiscrimination legislation?



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