Is posting off your bodily fluids to a DIY health-testing company the future of healthcare or just too much information?
On a dark February morning, I wake grainy with sleep and head to the kitchen. Before making toast or coffee, I unscrew the cap from a tiny test tube and spit into it. Over and over, but it’s surprisingly difficult to fill up a whole vial. It takes 10 minutes before my frothy deposit reaches the marked minimum line.
My housemate sips her coffee. “Are you ill?” she asks.
“No,” I say, as I put the pot into a plastic envelope marked “hazard”. “But maybe I could be more well?”
I am healthy. I’m 30, I go to the gym two or three times a week, I eat plenty of vegetables, and I’m lucky to have never suffered from a serious illness. But I also have this nagging sense that I could be fitter, stronger, more resilient to colds. I could be less tired, less prone to mental fogginess. I could be more optimal.
After breakfast, I take my saliva sample to the postbox at the end of my road and send it to 23andMe for analysis. It’s the first of many bodily fluids I’ll be putting in the post to the genetics-testing company over the next six months. In the past few years, dozens of startups have capitalised on our physical anxieties, offering tests that bypass the NHS. They provide pay-as-you-go medical testing normally reserved for the unwell, selling a promise that information equals control.
Self-testing kits are marketed at me everywhere I go. In a train station I walk past a big pink Medichecks stall (“A better you. It’s in your blood”) offering on-the-spot blood tests for everything from cancer markers to thyroid function; on Instagram, Atlas Biomed (“Two tests to discover yourself”) wants to sell me DNA tests and map my microbiome.
These buzzy new companies can broadly be grouped into three: blood tests to analyse health markers (Thriva, LiveSmart, Forth); DNA tests that assess the “fitness potential” in your genes (FitnessGenes, DNAFit); and microbiome analysis that looks at the individual makeup of your gut (Viome, Carbiotix, Atlas Biomed). Each makes broadly similar claims: in exchange for anywhere between £59 and £300, along with a sample of blood, spit or faeces, they will divine the inner workings of your body and advise you on how to improve them. All appropriate the visual language of social media, using pastel hues or young, vital-looking models, or both. This is as much health-for-the-Instagram-generation as a vegan, sugar-free, avocado-chocolate cake. But should you want a slice?
Ten weeks after I send off my vial, my 23andMe results are in. The results, it turns out, are innocuous enough, other than the fact that I’m predisposed to age-related macular degeneration. I have to Google the term; it means I may go blind when I’m older. I call my mother. “Your great-grandmother went blind,” she says, before our conversation moves on. Maybe she’s right to be blase: there’s nothing I can actually do with this information at this point. Besides, in the list of possible genetic conditions (such as Alzheimer’s disease, for which 23andMe tells me I have no elevated risk), I feel as if I’ve got off lightly.
A few weeks later, though, the US Food & Drug Administration authorises 23andMe – an American company – as a provider of direct-to-consumer testing for BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutations, which have been linked to breast cancer. (Once you’ve sent off an initial saliva sample, and your DNA has been sequenced, 23andMe continue to add results to your online profile.) I receive an email from the company: would I like to know if I have the cancer-causing variants? Rationally, I know that a genetic test isn’t destiny. But I also know that the results could open a Pandora’s box, the consequences of which I’m not sure I’m willing to deal with right now. I log off without clicking through on the link.
Read more: www.theguardian.com