Skip to main content
Move the World.
23andMe Can (Finally) Tell You about Your Genetic Cancer Risk

In 2013, the FDA banned 23andMe from telling customers about their genetic health risks. Now, after a five-year battle, 23andMe has finally won FDA approval to tell people if they have three mutations associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. It's a landmark legal achievement that could help usher in a new age of personalized medicine.

The Backstory: Before the FDA ban, 23andMe could tell you what scientific studies had discovered about your genetic risk for over 125 health conditions and 30 different drug reactions. They cautioned that a genetic predisposition wasn’t a diagnosis of an actual disease, and, of course, everyone should talk to their doctor to confirm any positive test and discuss options. Even better, they helped people understand their results by rating the quality of the science: a genetic risk with multiple large studies behind it got four stars, and small preliminary research got one star

Whose DNA Is It, Anyway? The government put a stop to all that in 2013, arguing that people could not be trusted to handle information about their own DNA. Specifically, the FDA said that you might get a false positive, and women who heard they had a higher risk of breast cancer might rush out in a panic to get unnecessary chemotherapy or a mastectomy (as though any doctor would do surgery without double-checking the test, explaining the results, and discussing options). After the ban, 23andMe could only tell you gimmicky stuff, like how much caffeine you might like to drink and whether your big toe was longer than your second toe. It went from a sophisticated healthcare tool to one step above a Facebook quiz about which Game of Thrones character you are (Bran).

The Breakthrough: Almost five years later, the FDA approved the first direct-to-consumer test for genetic cancer risk, finally letting 23andMe tell its customers what it has always known about their health. The company" CEO tweeted her relief:

It joins seven other health risk tests the FDA has now authorized, including reports on some genes associated with Celiac, Parkinson", and Alzheimer".

1,001 Things You Still Can't Know: Unfortunately, what 23andMe is allowed to share is still pretty limited. They can only tell you about three mutations on the BRCA gene that are associated with breast and ovarian cancers. These are almost exclusively found in Ashkenazi Jews, so the test is unlikely to tell most women anything about their risk. Over 1,000 other BRCA mutations have been linked to elevated cancer risk, and 23andMe still can't tell you anything about them — or the 117 other health conditions they used to test for. But it's a start, and perhaps the start of a revolution in healthcare and patients' rights.

Up Next

Robotics
Disney Gives Humanoid Robot a “Lifelike” Gaze
disney humanoid robot
Robotics
Disney Gives Humanoid Robot a “Lifelike” Gaze
To escape the uncanny valley, Disney created a humanoid robot that mimics the minor eye and head movements people make during interactions.

To escape the uncanny valley, Disney created a humanoid robot that mimics the minor eye and head movements people make during interactions.

Artificial Intelligence
Smart Traffic Lights Ease Congestion on City Streets
smart Traffic Lights
Artificial Intelligence
Smart Traffic Lights Ease Congestion on City Streets
Smart traffic lights by startup NoTraffic use AI to improve the flow of traffic in cities, minimizing carbon emissions and delays for first responders.

Smart traffic lights by startup NoTraffic use AI to improve the flow of traffic in cities, minimizing carbon emissions and delays for first responders.

Medical Innovation
This Smart Pill Could Unlock Mysteries of the Human Gut
Gut Microbiome
Medical Innovation
This Smart Pill Could Unlock Mysteries of the Human Gut
A new smart pill can be programmed to collect gut microbiome samples from anywhere along the GI tract — overcoming a major research problem.

A new smart pill can be programmed to collect gut microbiome samples from anywhere along the GI tract — overcoming a major research problem.

Future Forward
Exploring the Ocean Floor with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
AUV
Future Forward
Exploring the Ocean Floor with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
Efficient, autonomous, and economical, the AUV is quickly becoming essential for underwater research.

Efficient, autonomous, and economical, the AUV is quickly becoming essential for underwater research.

Environment
The Robot Racing to Study Antarctica’s Massive Ice Melt
The Robot Racing to Study Antarctica’s Massive Ice Melt
Environment
The Robot Racing to Study Antarctica’s Massive Ice Melt
Icefin, a semi-autonomous research vessel, is on a mission to search for clues about one of the continent’s fastest melting glaciers, the Thwaites Glacier.
By Sarah Wells

Icefin, a semi-autonomous research vessel, is on a mission to search for clues about one of the continent’s fastest melting glaciers, the Thwaites Glacier.

Dope Science
Psychedelic Mushrooms Explained
Psychedelic Mushrooms Explained
Dope Science
Psychedelic Mushrooms Explained
Psychedelic mushrooms, AKA magic mushrooms or psilocybin mushrooms, are currently being researched as a treatment for depression, addiction, and more.

Psychedelic mushrooms, AKA magic mushrooms or psilocybin mushrooms, are currently being researched as a treatment for depression, addiction, and more.

Superhuman
Helping Kids Walk With Wearable Robots
Helping Kids Walk With Wearable Robots
Watch Now
Superhuman
Helping Kids Walk With Wearable Robots
Exoskeletons aren't just science fiction anymore. Wearable robots are helping kids with cerebral palsy walk.
Watch Now

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common movement disorder in children, and nearly half of kids with CP can't walk own their own. As bones grow and muscles set incorrectly, walking becomes progressively more difficult. Extensive and repeated surgeries are often required to provide relief, but they can't solve the underlying problem. Now, engineers in the Biomechatronics Lab at Northern Arizona University are hoping that...

Coded
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Watch Now
Coded
Nico Sell on Recruiting Hackers for Good
Nico Sell, founder and chairman of the Wickr Foundation, on teaching kids how to hack and encouraging them to use their new-found talents for good.
Watch Now

People often have a bad perception of hackers, conjuring up images of either 20-somethings in their parents’ basement or sophisticated criminals responsible for massive data breaches. Nico Sell, founder and chairman of the Wickr Foundation, wants to change that. She thinks not only are hackers some of the smartest, most creative people around, but also that hacking will prove to be the most powerful tool for our...