Would You Want to Know?

Sep 19, 2008 2:00pm

Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder, says that when he had his genome tested for predisposition to various diseases, he "viewed it mostly as entertainment."  His wife, Anne Wojcicki, started a company, 23andMe, which does the testing.

Mr. Brin says he learned something important.  On a BLOG he quietly started, he reveals that he is at increased risk for Parkinson’s Disease.  His mother suffers from it, and he says he has donated money to the Parkinson’s Institute, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and other organizations. 

Genetic testing has been controversial — like many new fields, it’s confusing to consumers, government and doctors.  "You find some that are way out there, doing sort of the modern version of genetic snake oil," said Dr. Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, in an interview with us.

It may also tell you more than you bargained for — and can’t do anything about.  Would you want to know if you’re at increased risk for Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s?  When such testing began, there weren’t many takers.

Mr. Brin takes an opposite view.  "I know early in my life something I am substantially predisposed to. I now have the opportunity to adjust my life to reduce those odds (e.g. there is evidence that exercise may be protective against Parkinson’s)," he writes.

He concludes, "I feel fortunate to be in this position. Until the fountain of youth is discovered, all of us will have some conditions in our old age only we don’t know what they will be. I have a better guess than almost anyone else for what ills may be mine — and I have decades to prepare for it."

By the way, The New Yorker has a short piece about a "Spit Party" for 23andMe, where various prominent friends of the Brins gave saliva samples for testing.  Brin was there.  All very light-hearted, presumably before Brin made his own test results public. 

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