Last October, Kristen Whitaker, a mom from Wellesley, Mass., spit into a tube, sent it to a lab that scanned her saliva for about 1 million different points on her genome--a person's genetic code--and learned from personal-genetics company 23andMe that she probably had celiac disease. An endoscopy confirmed the condition, and Whitaker--who for years had chalked up her stomach pains to irritable bowel syndrome--went on to test her three kids. She discovered that her 5-year-old, who was falling off pediatric growth charts, also had a gluten intolerance. They're both now gluten-free, and her daughter no longer cries when she eats.
If 23andMe has its way, the Whitaker family's life-changing experience is a harbinger of things to come. At the end of June, the California-based company--co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin--announced that it is seeking the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its $299 panel of tests that give ordinary people a window into their extraordinary DNA. Assuming it gets that governmental gold seal (the FDA has 90 days to respond), there's a good chance that cheapie DNA tests could become increasingly commonplace.
That's great if you're an information lover. Scads of data generated by comprehensive testing can enable personalization in medicine and improve drug response while tipping you off to potential disease risk, among other benefits. (See sidebar.) But some experts worry that too much information will prove overwhelming, particularly in cases when the technology outpaces our understanding. What good is knowing you're predisposed to get Alzheimer's, for example, if there's no way to stop it from happening? But medical knowledge is evolving every day, says Ashley Gould, 23andMe's vice president for corporate development and its chief legal officer: "We are on a steep learning curve."
That's why most physicians don't routinely recommend genetic testing. But Whitaker's doctor did; he called it an integral part of modern medical care, and as time goes on, more people like Whitaker and the 150,000 others worldwide who have used 23andMe are bound to agree. "Had I never done 23andMe, I am 100% sure that we would still be eating gluten and making ourselves sick in the process," she says. "And we owe it all to a little spit."