Brooke and OTM producer PJ Vogt get their genetic tests back and reveal the results to each other. Then, to help them understand what their results really mean, Brooke and PJ speak to geneticist Greg Lennon, co-founder of SNPedia, a wiki-pedia for genetic information that aims to make “DNA stuff” real. Lennon answers some of Brooke and PJ’s pressing questions about their results. Among other things, Brooke finds out she doesn’t have as much Neanderthal in her genes as she hoped.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after a month or so, PJ and I get our results, which we sent to a geneticist for more analysis and context, through a company called Prometheus. We’ll bring him in later.
So we’ve got it. Well, go ahead and open your Coke.
PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS] Well –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking of which, did you find out whether or not you’re a fast caffeine metabolizer?
PJ VOGT: That was maybe the only – good piece of news in my [LAUGHS] entire report, is that I am a fast caffeine metabolizer and it actually is better for my heart, instead of worse for my heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ha!
PJ VOGT: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Excellent! So what was the – bad news?
PJ VOGT: Just everything else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really?
PJ VOGT: I – yeah, like [LAUGHS] I have a high risk of gout. Gout wasn’t in my original report but I got an email a week after I got my results, being like, hey, you’ve got an update. [LAUGHS] And I clicked through and it was like, 35 percent chance that you’ll develop gout when you get older.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, that’s a fantastic finding because you can moderate your diet; you can respond to that.
PJ VOGT: But I don’t - I don't want any – like I thought either it would say that I was really healthy or it would say - I think maybe young people have a tendency to imagine dying very dramatically, so I thought it was gonna be like you’ve got PJ Vogt Disease and you’ve got six months to live.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
PJ VOGT: I didn’t think it was gonna say you need to take care of yourself, otherwise, as you get older, you are likely to get the diseases that all people get as they age.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bummer, man!
PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This reminds you of your mortality. When you saw that your results came in, were you scared?
PJ VOGT: I was immensely scared. I mean, it gave – it gave me 20 things to Google that I'd never heard of, that all sounded ominous. I mean, I don't - I didn't know what a venous thromboembolism was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the thing that I have –
PJ VOGT: Me too. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -an increase of. Oh-kay, I bet you it’s an Ashkenazi thing.
PJ VOGT: Yeah, I found out I’m 30 percent Ashkenazi, which I didn’t know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, you’re only 37 percent? I am 97 percent Ashkenazi. When it looks for your history across the globe, it seems like that I spontaneously sprang up in the middle of the Ukraine somewhere.
It’s a little disappointing. Even more disappointing was being only 2.7 percent Neanderthal.
PJ VOGT: I'm sorry about that. I know that was important to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What were you?
PJ VOGT: I think I was a little bit more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re not worthy.
PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS] I was like 3.5 percent, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, so you got a little above average. You know your man crush, James Fallows, is 5 percent.
PJ VOGT: Seriously?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that is way above average.
PJ VOGT: He’s a – he’s 5 percent Neanderthal and he can fly a plane. That’s crazy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So the things that I kind of expected, like tendency to obesity, diabetes 2. This venous thromboembolism thing was kind of a new idea.
PJ VOGT: One of the main reasons I initially wanted do this was that I've been in a prolonged fight with my family. They all have gluten allergies, and they think that I do and that I'm in denial. And so, I wanted conclusive proof that I don't. And my test [LAUGHS] said that I do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately, were you glad you did this?
PJ VOGT: Oh God, yeah. For me, it was really interesting to see where I'm from. My family has a bit of a weird genealogy and we’re pretty far flung, and there's been a lot of conjecture about it. They give you a map and they say not only you had family in Spain and you had family that were Jewish and you had family in Germany but also they say like there's a person in Iowa who is 5 percent related to you.
And I brought up a person who the social networking component said was my relative, and my mom said, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It was her mother's estranged sister, so it was, it was a branch of my mom's family that she had completely lost touch with but heard about. So she's now doing the test and she wants to message this woman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. I found a lot of people who were second to third cousins.
PJ VOGT: You found a lot of ‘em?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
PJ VOGT: A lot of people actually asked me to share my genetic information with them, and it’s one of the first times where I’ve actually felt uncomfortable about over-sharing on a social network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
PJ VOGT: That felt like a silly thing to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, that is unusual for you.
PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we’re gonna bring in now Greg Lennon, who is a geneticist, who has looked at our material through the Prometheus site. Greg, welcome to the show.
GREG LENNON: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think were the most unusual findings for PJ and for me?
GREG LENNON: Well, why don't you tell me first what you noticed?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, I noticed an increased risk for breast cancer, personally. It seems that the average risk is 13.5 but my risk is 18.3 percent. And I don't know what I should do with that information. Can you explain to me how they came to that?
GREG LENNON: Sure. In the population, which, in this case, probably means mostly Caucasian females, your risk is estimated to be that number. Now, the real question though is, is that important and is it something you would either worry about or discuss with your physician? And the answer, in that case, is probably, well, there's no harm in discussing it with your physician.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ugh, I knew you were gonna say that.
GREG LENNON: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You took this test yourself.
GREG LENNON: Yep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said if you were gonna be making sausage, you ought to know what it tastes like. You know, was there a finding that you went, holy cow, or did you say, this is interesting, perhaps I should consult my physician about some moderate changes in lifestyle?
GREG LENNON: Yeah, we did do this first, years ago. And when I first took part of my report to my doctor, they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. This was all too new for them. Now, it’s getting better. And in areas like breast cancer, it actually is better. In my case, breast cancer actually was something of very personal importance, not to me but to someone who’s very close to me, and was brought up with the physician and did change the course of therapy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did she have the BRCA markers?
GREG LENNON: No. The truth is most women with breast cancer do not have BRCA1 markers, and certainly not the common ones.
PJ VOGT: I feel like I’ve been given a lot of information, and I'm not sure how to responsibly use it. I, I don't know what level of attention to pay now when I read an article that says scientists may have found a DNA marker for whatever, if I should immediately rush back, try to see if I’ve got it, or if I should hold off because it’s just gonna scare and confuse me [LAUGHS], and I’m basically gonna misunderstand what I’ve been given.
GREG LENNON: Okay, that’s a really easy one to answer.
PJ VOGT: Okay.
GREG LENNON: You hear something in the news, totally ignore it.
PJ VOGT: [LAUGHS] That was my policy already. That's great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to the 23andMe results, I have a slightly lower risk for Alzheimer's but a higher risk for other cognitive issues?
GREG LENNON: In general, anytime DNA speaks about cognitive issues and things having to do with the brain, you’ve really got to realize we’re really in early days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GREG LENNON: There are many, many, many factors that are playing a role, not only just in your DNA but in your environment, in your education, in, for all we know, what you had for breakfast. Small, slight risks are really nothing that you can act on.
PJ VOGT: According to my results, I have a slightly higher likelihood of having celiac disease or, or at least a gluten allergy. It was a very slim probability, but then I got sort of a health report saying this is something you should talk to a doctor about. Where, where should I pitch my level of a – anxiety?
GREG LENNON: Are you willing to hear a little bit of statistics?
PJ VOGT: Yes.
GREG LENNON: That DNA change that you have is one found in almost everybody with celiac disease, with gluten intolerance, serious gluten intolerance. On the other hand, it just happens that there are a whole lot of people wandering around who don't have any obvious sign of gluten intolerance, who also carry that change. Basically, when you get told you have this marker, well, yeah, you do share it with the folks who have celiac disease but, in the absence of any other information, the odds are about 15 to 1 in favor of you not getting celiac disease.
PJ VOGT: Hah! So not on 23andMe but in your results, it said that I had something called a warrior gene, and I was curious about that.
GREG LENNON: Well –
PJ VOGT: Oh.
GREG LENNON: [LAUGHS] It doesn't mean you ought to join the Special Forces.
It does mean that people with the warrior gene have a slightly higher statistical likelihood of, in stressful situations, fighting rather than fleeing or, as tested by the equivalent psychological test done on college students who need to make a little money in a lab after school sometime.
PJ VOGT: Wait, so how do they stress out the college kids?
GREG LENNON: You can’t think of ways to stress out college kids?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there anything about either of our results that struck you as somewhat unusual?
GREG LENNON: Well, probably the most important thing that’s left out in your report was that using Plavix, one of the most commonly prescribed drugs right now to treat or prevent stroke and heart attacks, isn’t gonna do you much good. If you're ever there and your cardiologist or other physician is saying, hey, here’s the drug for you, well, you could just say, it doesn’t look like it, why don’t we try a different drug that’s more likely to be effective? In PJ’’s report, he’s predicted to be lactose intolerant. He may not have had the slightest idea that now or later in his life that ice cream may just give him an upset stomach. Maybe he already knows it now.
PJ VOGT: It’s funny, actually. I do know it because [LAUGHS] I’m terribly lactose intolerant. But for most of my childhood I didn’t know, and I got sick all the time. And if this had been around, I could have spent a lot less time vomiting milk, which would have been great.
GREG LENNON: Yeah, and you know, of course, in this field more and more people are moving towards, hey, why don’t we do these sort of analyses right at birth? A lot of this science will merge into your, hopefully, electronic medical record.
PJ VOGT: It also said I was more likely than most people to become addicted to heroin.
GREG LENNON: Yeah - again, those are some of these reports that you may just want to not believe it the first or second time it’s reported but, you know, wait and let the studies build up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The study that suggests that I'm higher than average in empathy or something, that - that's a bunch of hooey, right?
GREG LENNON: Yep.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, that’s what I figured.
GREG LENNON: DNA is not destiny. You can have identical twins who, as far as we know, share almost totally identical DNA, and they can have different medical histories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about privacy issues, any concern there?
GREG LENNON: I wouldn't say there are a lot of issues right now, honestly, in part because we just know so little. Now, maybe when we know a lot more, having your DNA out there in the world will be problematic. But the truth is we won't be able to control that anyway. Your DNA is out there, whether it’s on the surfaces of things you touch or elsewhere and, sooner or later, somebody could get access to it. And fortunately, we also have things like the so-called GINA, Genetic Nondisclosure Act, that does protect us a bit legally, at least here in the US, from having DNA information used against you.
PJ VOGT: I just remembered there’s one question that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t ask. In the category of like things that are reliable versus things that are hooey, it said that I will not have male pattern baldness. Can you tell me that that’s not hooey?
GREG LENNON: Not hooey.
PJ VOGT: Really?
GREG LENNON: You’ve got a, a really reduced risk of male pattern baldness.
PJ VOGT: Oh, that’s great. That’s great.
GREG LENNON: You can – you can count on that one.
PJ VOGT: Okay, cool!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: See, simple things make simple people happy.
GREG LENNON: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bye, Greg.
GREG LENNON: Good talking to you, PJ and Brooke.
PJ VOGT: Oh, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Lennon is a geneticist with SNPedia, which is kind of like Wikipedia for DNA information.
[MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Zac Spencer and Megan Teehan. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Justin Gerrish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And funding for Mary’s piece came from Susan and Peter Solomon. Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.