23andMe DNA Snafu: "I Started Screaming"

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

ScienceBlogs' Genetic Future reports on a mixup of DNA samples by the Google-affiliated personal genomics company 23andMe, one of a host of companies that scrutinize customers' genetic material and analyze their likelihood of bearing various traits and disease risks. This, as we've reported previously, is far from perfect science; despite the touchy-feely marketing, such tests provide little beyond genetic navelgazing.

The timing wasn't so great for 23andMe, which recently came under the scrutiny of Rep. Henry Waxman's oversight subcommittee. And, while mistakes happen, you can run into real customer-service problems when you screw up. 23andMe, which uses a contract lab, explained the mishap in an announcement visible only to customers who logged in (see full announcement at bottom):

Up to 96 customers may have received and viewed data that was not their own. Upon learning of the mix-ups, we immediately identified all customers potentially affected, notified them of the problem and removed the data from their accounts. The lab is now concurrently conducting an investigation and re-processing the samples of the affected customers and their accurate results will be posted early next week. We expect the investigation will be complete over the next several days and we will provide further details when we have them.

Dan MacArthur notes in his Genetic Future post that customers were griping on the announcement's comments thread about how long it took 23andMe to provide feedback on their baffling data, not to mention the poor quality control—23andMe could easily cross-check a few known traits, like gender. One mother became rather anxious, to say the least, after her family's test results suggested that her son wasn't a blood relation:

He was not a match for any of us. I checked his haplogroups and they were different from ours. I started screaming. A month before my son was born two local hospitals had baby switches. I panicked and I checked over and over. My kids were sitting at the computer because we all wanted to see the results. My son laughed but he looked upset. I called my sister in tears.

So it's buyer beware, says MacArthur, reminding customers not to take their results for granted:

The process between spitting into a cup and viewing your genetic results online involves multiple steps where things can go wrong, ranging from errors in sample tracking (the most pernicious and difficult to correct), through genotyping problems (usually much easier to spot), to errors in data analysis and display.

The best advice, however, might be to take your results with a grain of salt, errors or no errors. Until the loose genetic correlations these tests are based upon are supported by controlled clinical trials involving large numbers of people (identifying candidates for such trials is a quiet part of 23andMe's business model), personal genomics will amount to little more than personal entertainment.

 

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Here's 23andMe's full announcement:

We recently determined that a number of new 23andMe customer samples were incorrectly processed by our contracted lab. We want to clarify what happened with the sample errors, how it happened and what we're doing to prevent it from happening again. Providing each and every one of our customers with accurate data is 23andMe's number one priority, and we fully realize the gravity of this incident.

Up to 96 customers may have received and viewed data that was not their own. Upon learning of the mix-ups, we immediately identified all customers potentially affected, notified them of the problem and removed the data from their accounts. The lab is now concurrently conducting an investigation and re-processing the samples of the affected customers and their accurate results will be posted early next week. We expect the investigation will be complete over the next several days and we will provide further details when we have them.

We are currently putting additional procedures in place that will add an extra layer of safeguards to help assure that similar incidents do not occur in the future. We are deliberating on a process that would include removing manual steps at the lab, completely automating the sample analyses, and implementing further checks of the data before it gets loaded into customer accounts. Please be assured that our testing laboratory's processes comply with strict professional, regulatory, and corporate quality assurance standards for ensuring that all laboratory test results are accurate. The laboratory will adopt corrective action as warranted based on the findings of the investigation.

The science behind 23andMe's personal genetics service remains proven and sound. We recognize that this is a very serious issue and your trust is of the utmost importance. We hope that this helps clarify what has happened and what we are doing to prevent these problems in the future. Please contact me at [redacted]@23andme.com if you have any further questions. We appreciate your comments and feedback.

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