genetics

Genetic Testing Companies Are Facing a Racial Bias Problem in Disease Risk Tests

The large genetic studies underlying certain disease risk tests have primarily been done in populations of European ancestry, limiting their accuracy.

Earlier this year, California-based Ambry Genetics announced that it was discontinuing a test meant to estimate a person's risk of developing prostate or breast cancer. The test looks for variations in a person's DNA that are known to be associated with these cancers.

Known as a polygenic risk score, this type of test adds up the effects of variants in many genes — often in the dozens or hundreds — and calculates a person's risk of developing a particular health condition compared to other people. In this way, polygenic risk scores are different from traditional genetic tests that look for mutations in single genes, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which raise the risk of breast cancer.

Traditional genetic tests look for mutations that are relatively rare in the general population but have a large impact on a person's disease risk, like BRCA1 and BRCA2. By contrast, polygenic risk scores scan for more common genetic variants that, on their own, have a small effect on risk. Added together, however, they can raise a person's risk for developing disease.

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Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is a science and biotech journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.
Genomic Data Has a Diversity Problem, But Global Efforts Are Underway to Fix It

Genetic data sets skew too European, threatening to narrow who will benefit from future advances.

Louis Reed on Unsplash

Genomics has begun its golden age. Just 20 years ago, sequencing a single genome cost nearly $3 billion and took over a decade. Today, the same feat can be achieved for a few hundred dollars and the better part of a day . Suddenly, the prospect of sequencing not just individuals, but whole populations, has become feasible.

The genetic differences between humans may seem meager, only around 0.1 percent of the genome on average, but this variation can have profound effects on an individual's risk of disease, responsiveness to medication, and even the dosage level that would work best.

Already, initiatives like the U.K.'s 100,000 Genomes Project - now expanding to 1 million genomes - and other similarly massive sequencing projects in Iceland and the U.S., have begun collecting population-scale data in order to capture and study this variation.

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Farhan Mitha
Farhan Mitha is a freelance science writer based in London. He regularly writes about biotechnology, synthetic biology, and natural history, and is currently studying for a master's degree in Evolutionary Genomics. Find him on Twitter @FarhanMitha.
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