At an NHL hockey game, it’s not uncommon to see some blood. The other day, it turned out to be some of my own.
The good news is that it was all in the name of science. The Boston-based consumer genetics company Orig3n had announced that it was planning to set up booths at a Boston Bruins game I was going to attend. Along with other fans, I could get a free DNA test and learn about my own genes.
These kinds of tests are increasingly common — and many of them are marketed toward fitness junkies and sports fans like myself. The idea is that you can discover all kinds of things you never knew about your health.
But not everyone is impressed. When Orig3n announced it would hand out free kits at a Baltimore Ravens game last month, it turned into a fiasco. Maryland’s Department of Health shut down plans for “Ravens DNA Day” just hours before the game. Experts questioned whether the tests provided any meaningful health information at all. Last week, BuzzFeed reported that Orig3n lacked the federal legal certifications it needed to offer analysis of certain genes.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) October 26, 2017
None of that, apparently, stopped the Bruins from partnering with Orig3n. And so I decided to check out the tests for myself.
When I arrived at TD Garden, the first thing I did was start circling the concourse in search of the Orig3n booth. It was pretty easy to spot — there wasn’t any line. I was told that by donating my DNA, I was entering to win a hockey stick signed by the entire Boston Bruins team. All I had to do was enter my signature on an iPad and sit right there and give a DNA sample. If I gave a saliva sample, I’d be entered to win once. If I also volunteered a blood sample, I’d be entered to win twice.
I hate needles. Last month I had to jog in place while humming the “Rocky” theme to fire myself up for a flu shot. But I’m also a pretty big Bruins fan, and that stick would look pretty sweet in storage somewhere. (No way my wife would let me hang it on a wall.)
After scouring for a good vein, a phlebotomist managed to get a sample. While the blood was flowing, I was also asked do a cheek swab on myself.
As I understood it, DNA in my cheeks should be the same DNA that is found in my blood. So why did the company need both? Orig3n COO Kate Blanchard told me vie e-mail “People who choose to donate blood are donating a teaspoon of blood for regenerative medicine research. Using iPSC technology, we reprogram adult blood cells into stem cells for research. We are currently researching cell therapies using Orig3n’s cell bank, the world’s largest uniformly consented cell bank.”
And that was it! The phlebotomist threw a little Orig3n-logo-covered bandage on my arm that read “I bled for the common good” and I was on my way to my balcony seats to watch the game. I got an email the next day titled “Your DNA is safe with us!” that was from “Marvin, ORIG3N’s (handsome) DNA decoding robot.” The email let me know my sample was being “decoded” and had instructions on where I could find my results when they were ready.
Three business days later, I got an email asking me if I was ready to “explore my DNA.”
I was! So I clicked on the link and was presented with a sample of four different genes. (The commercially marketed kits such as “Aura” and “Superhero” include between six and 27 genes. Part of the idea behind these free testing kits is that consumers will want to pay up for more comprehensive testing.)
The first gene analyzed was ACTN3, which is the gene responsible for making a protein found in fast-twitch muscles. According to Orig3n, because of my result of “TT,” I am “gifted” when it comes to “muscle force.”
I’m also “gifted” when it comes to language ability because my test results showed “GG” on the FOXP2 gene, according to Orig3n. Unfortunately, having the result of “AT” on the AGER gene means I am merely normal when it comes to sugar-induced aging. My vitamin D levels? I’m also just normal there, apparently, due to my “TT” variation on the gene GC.
Reading the test results was fun. But did they really tell me anything useful?
That is less clear.
When STAT reporter Rebecca Robbins and I met with Dr. Robert Green, a geneticist at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s hospital last year, he told us, “There is no evidence the [genetic testing kits] will give you meaningful personal information about your athleticism or your diet, or anything else that touches on your lifestyle.”
When asked to respond to the kind of criticism leveraged by researchers like Green, Orig3n’s Blanchard, through a representative, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has been trying to develop new guidelines to ensure companies aren’t misleading consumers about what the test results actually show. Shortly after I got my results from Orig3n — and just days after BuzzFeed reported that the company lacked the certification to analyze 18 genes related to health — the FDA announced that it would subject vitamin D genetic testing to special controls.
I logged back into my Orig3n account to have a look at my result for GC, the vitamin D gene. Sure enough, it was gone.
— ORIG3N Inc (@ORIG3N_Inc) October 27, 2017