By Lone Frank
Although scientists have been studying genes for decades, the consumer genomics industry is only just finding its feet. A rash of companies have rushed into the market over recent years. They offer all sorts of genome services, from tracing your ancestors through to your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s and even genetic-match dating.
Lone Frank is the first writer to step into this field and scrutinise it with the attention it deserves. Clutching her own genome in one hand and her laptop in the other, Frank marched around the world interviewing the key players in this fledgling industry to found out what exactly they are up to. She also learnt a great deal about herself too.
Frank balances her dual objective of discovering both the industry and her own genetic fate rather well. The author’s interest in her own genome brings the book to life in ways that might have been impossible otherwise. It is therefore hugely gratifying to read an interview with, say, the founder and director of Iceland’s deCODEme, Kári Stefánsson. deCODEme is one of the first companies offering genomic testing to the public. Frank’s meeting with this “notoriously gruff” man has a fascinating tension to it, for she is conversing with him as both a journalist and a client. Even ‘client’ in this context contains the complex nature of ‘patient’ and ‘customer’. A candid Dane, Frank spars with the “majestic” Stefánsson, who she notes is the descendent of a tenth-century Icelandic poet remembered for loutish behaviour.
It is by pulling together such fascinating observations with her probing questions and the patient’s need for reassurance that Frank tells her story. She gradually builds up a series of unique portraits – not just of Stefánsson but also people such as James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, and Tamara Brown, the head of research at Zurich-based GenePartner, which claims to be able to find genetically suitable love interests for folks who are happy to send off a DNA sample.
Although Frank describes a very entertaining journey, it is apparent that she has no destination. Her book should win readers and acclaim for being first off the mark, but it could have been even better if it had an argument or at least a stronger objective. As it stands, she appears content merely to examine the genomics industry – and maybe we shouldn’t expect anything else of a first look – without concluding much. This is certainly a sector to monitor, so hopefully Frank can keep her eye on it for us.