The field of genetics has come a long way since human genome sequencing began in the 1990s—but it still has massive room for growth, 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki said at the TIME 100 Health Summit on Thursday.
Wojcicki appeared on a panel about DNA and genetics with geneticist Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. During the conversation, Wojcicki likened lingering concerns over privacy issues associated with at-home genetic testing—like that which 23andMe provides through its direct-to-consumer saliva tests—to decades-ago hesitance to put credit card information online, which she experienced at the time as an investor on Wall Street. The arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, which relied on genetic data uploaded by his relatives to a public database, made many consumers wary of how they could be identified by their DNA—fears only heightened by a 2018 study that found millions of Americans could be identified through these databases, even if they’d never taken a DNA test. (The Golden State Killer was arrested based on genetic data uploaded to GEDmatch, a free online database).
Wojcicki, however, said she believes consumers will eventually get used to the risks and benefits associated with direct-to-consumer testing. “The reality is with a new technology, it just takes time for people to be comfortable with it,” Wojcicki said. “We believe you own your genome and you should do with it what you want.”
Even a few decades ago, when Lander helped lead the landmark Human Genome Project, that prospect would have been unimaginable. At that time, it took huge amounts of time and money to sequence a human genome; now, millions of Americans have had theirs analyzed by companies like 23andMe.
“I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have predicted where we’d get to,” Lander said. “I would have underestimated where we’re going.”
Wojcicki and Lander agreed that the proliferation of genetic sequencing holds immense promise not only because of its raw scientific insights, but also for the impact it has had on data sharing. Before the Human Genome Project, “the tradition in science had been you collected your data and you analyzed your data and you held onto your data,” Lander remembered.
It’s hard to reconcile that with a world where consumer-facing companies like 23andMe not only give genetic data back to customers, but also to drug giants like GlaxoSmithKline. (Data is only shared with third parties if consumers opt in to 23andMe’ research programs.) “The only way we’re really going to make meaningful progress in research,” Wojcicki said, “is not if it’s one single institution doing it, but actually if we crowdsource it together.”
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme