The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky September 17, 2008
Biopolitical Times
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Gracing the front page of The New York Times Sunday Styles section this weekend is a lengthy account of a celebrity "spit party" at which notables ejected saliva samples into test tubes. The same high-upscale gala is chronicled in the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker.

The event, hosted by media moguls Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, and Harvey Weinstein, was part of a publicity push by Google-backed personal genomics start-up 23andMe. The company launched its celebrity marketing strategy this past January, when it distributed a thousand free spit kits at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Then it announced - just last week - that it's slashing its prices to Christmas-stocking levels, in a bid to make DNA tests this year's high-tech must-have. The company's press release presents the move as a way to "democratize personal genetics."

This is shrewd promotion. 23andMe has attracted gobs (so to speak) of fawning media attention for itself, and introduced consumers to the new personal genomics industry. It's also been able to deflect attention from the criticisms and concerns voiced by physicians, bioethicists, and government regulators. Inviting key reporters to the fancy parties, and throwing in free kits along with the glamour and glitz, hasn't hurt a bit.

What the company doesn't advertise is that its real business plan isn't selling spit kits or DNA tests, but compiling databases full of genetic information that it can sell to medical researchers. 23andMe misleads customers and the public about this intention both implicitly and explicitly. Its web page listing its "values" says, for example, "We believe that your genetic information should be controlled by you….Though we store and help you interpret it, your genetic information is yours to have and explore."

But buried in the New York Times account, as it is no doubt buried in 23andMe's customer agreement, is the detail that while purchasers can choose not to participate in the company's survey about their phenotypic traits, they "cannot opt out of having their information anonymously shared" with researchers.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: