What's Your DNA Worth?

Imagine that on a day just like any other, you grab your mail and start thumbing through the ads and solicitations per usual, and you come across a “pre-approval” letter from a bank offering you a credit card. You open it expecting to see the typical application and prepaid envelope—but this time you find something else as well.

You pull out the unexpected object, which turns out to be a long cheek swab sealed in plastic, the sort used in forensics labs for DNA sampling. Reading the application, you find that this is no typical credit offer. The bank has sent you an offer of trade: a sample of your DNA for a beefy credit limit at low interest.

While I don’t expect to receive an offer like this anytime in the immediate future, all signs point to it coming eventually. So the question is: what’s your DNA worth? Will you accept more credit, or perhaps additional come-ons like reward points toward that vacation you’ve been wanting, for a quick swab along the inside of your cheek?

The news (originally broken by The Wall Street Journal) that VISA submitted a patent application mentioning gathering of DNA data for marketing purposes has many concerned, and legitimately so. It was one thing when your subscription to Men’s Health was cross referenced in a marketing database with your preference for Hollister t-shirts, but delving into DNA is entirely another.
To make sense of what VISA’s plan is all about, and where this may be going, I spoke to Seth Redmore, VP of Product Development at Lexalytics, Inc, a firm that analyzes oceans of collected data from multiple sources for major companies around the globe.
David: Should we be concerned about VISA, or any other banks or corporations, wanting to access our DNA for marketing purposes?

Before considering the legal/ethical side of this, let’s consider whether DNA information could be useful for ad targeting. Taking an obvious example, we’re seeing a lot of pharmaceutical advertising on television. Seems like knowing someone’s disease proclivities could be useful for targeting pharmaceutical ads. Perhaps you’re genetically prone to gaining weight, or the DNA tells you more about ethnic background (which could play a role in which medications are beneficial or harmful). So, yes, it’s probably useful for ad targeting.
Next, we have to ask what exactly is a “DNA database” (the term used in the VISA patent application)? I would take that to mean a fully sequenced set of DNA records that is tied to individuals. Current DNA “databases” are not fully sequenced, but that will change as cost for sequencing drops. As the two primary uses of DNA right now are research and law enforcement, those DNA sets are handled differently. Researchers will sequence the areas that they are interested in, looking for patterns or anomalies. Law enforcement has a different approach, where they store a certain set of “profiles” that they can use to match to individuals, but this information is useless in indicating anything other than a match to a particular person’s DNA.

So, for a “DNA database” to be useful for ad targeting, you need substantially different databases than what’s available today (setting aside the fact that we don’t even really know what most of our DNA does — but we’ll figure that out eventually).

But merely seeking to access DNA, even if the right databases haven’t been developed yet, is unnerving, no? What about HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) protection? 

This is where the discussion gets more interesting. HIPAA regulates “protected health information” in the US. It turns out that DNA is not specifically mentioned in HIPAA except for a specific section around law enforcement. (Note that medical providers are explicitly disallowed from sharing DNA information with law enforcement.) However, since for DNA to be useful for ad targeting it has to be connected to an identity — that certainly comes under the heading of “protected health information.”

Insurance companies are not allowed to refuse group coverage to an individual with genetic proclivities to a specific disease, but they are allowed to collect samples and charge more for insurance if they so desire. They are also covered under HIPAA regulations, so they can’t share medical information with companies like VISA for use in ad targeting or credit checking, or any other use.

dan stills

What is DNA?

           DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).

          The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.
           DNA bases pair up with each other, A with T and C with G, to form units called base pairs. Each base is also attached to a sugar molecule and a phosphate molecule. Together, a base, sugar, and phosphate are called a nucleotide. Nucleotides are arranged in two long strands that form a spiral called a double helix. The structure of the double helix is somewhat like a ladder, with the base pairs forming the ladder’s rungs and the sugar and phosphate molecules forming the vertical sidepieces of the ladder.
          An important property of DNA is that it can replicate, or make copies of itself. Each strand of DNA in the double helix can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases. This is critical when cells divide because each new cell needs to have an exact copy of the DNA present in the old cell.

For more information about DNA:
          The National Human Genome Research Institute fact sheet Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) provides an introduction to this molecule.

         Information about the genetic code and the structure of the DNA double helix is available from GeneEd.

         For additional information about the structure of DNA, please refer to the chapter called What Is A Genome? in the NCBI Science Primer. Scroll down to the heading “The Physical Structure of the Human Genome.”

         The New Genetics, a publication of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, discusses the structure of DNA and how it was discovered.