During visits to the doctor, patients are often required to answer a laundry list of questions about their family medical history.
For many, it can be a struggle to fill out the forms any further back than two generations. Unfortunately, the process is all too easy for Kansas City resident Michelle Cole.
"I always joke that I can fill that form out faster than anybody because it's pretty much a big N/A," Cole said.
Adopted at birth, Cole's biological blueprint is practically a blank. The little bit of health information that she has been able to uncover is alarming.
Cole's search for answers began 22 years ago when she came down with a genetic knee problem. She contacted the adoption agency that had placed her, but she was disappointed when her birth mother was not interested in connecting.
"She refused contact," Cole said. "Then I found out years later that she had died of invasive inflammatory breast cancer."
Learning that her biological mother had died of breast cancer at age 54 and her grandfather passed away from Alzheimer's prompted Cole to pursue a more intense search for answers, medical and otherwise.
"I don't have anyone to tell me about the day I was born," Cole said. "And those questions: ‘Mom why is my hair curly? Why do I have hazel eyes?' Everybody takes that for granted and I don't have that."
23andMe is a privately owned lab in Silicon Valley, CA. Founded in 2006, the company was created to help people better understand their own genetic information. Along with conducting major research projects on genetic conditions like Parkinson's disease, 23andMe sells in-home DNA test kits.
When KCTV5 reporter Carolyn Long approached Cole about trying the product, she cautiously agreed, to see if she could learn more about her health history, health future and possible family ties.
"My biggest fear is what I might find genetically," Cole said. "My biggest hope is to find long lost relatives who can tell me what she was like. I'd like to know more about her the person and if anyone knows something about her relationship with the birth father".
The process is simple enough. The $200 DNA test kits are available at the 23andMe web site. The boxes of supplies and instructions arrived in a couple of days. Cole and Long were each required to spit into test tubes already containing a special preservative solution. Once filled, the capped tubes were returned to the lab.
"From that saliva, we extract DNA and from that look at one million different positions in DNA and interpret those," said Joanna Mountain, senior director of research for 23andMe.
It takes scientists an average of six-to-eight weeks to analyze the DNA and send out a password-protected link to the test results via email. With her permission, Mountain delivered Cole and Long's test results by phone with KCTV5 in the room. Of the more than 200 diseases that can be detected, Mountain started with the two illnesses Cole found most concerning: breast cancer and Alzheimer's.
"You have none of the variants associated with breast cancer," Mountain revealed.
"Ahhhh!" said a visibly relieved Cole.
The news was equally good for Cole's chance of developing Alzheimer's. So, her attention quickly turned to her ancestry. The results from 23andMe mapped Cole's DNA to one particular part of the world.
"It points to Croatia," Mountain said.
"You nailed it! They're from Croatia!" Cole exclaimed. "This is insanity."
The ancestry results given by Mountain also correctly honed in on Long's German roots.
"My mom was born and raised in Germany," Long said.
"Nailed it again!" Cole added.
The 23andMe findings also offered Cole a way to fill in her family tree by suggesting people with whom she shares DNA, and if they are willing, a way to connect. No one will ever see a customer's medical information without permission, including insurance companies.
"23andMe keeps that information very secure and it is up to the individual to decide what to do with that information," Mountain said.
Since receiving her results, Cole has reached out to many of the relatives revealed by 23andMe, opening the door for more answers about her identity.
As for Long, the health report offered mostly good news, with a decreased risk for both breast cancer and Parkinson's disease, but an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis or blood clots.
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