Can Your Genes Explain Sexual Orientation?

Genetic testing can explain many things. Is your sexual orientation one of them?

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

October 30 2012 1:00 PM ET

The most commonly requested test, Drabant says, is for sexual orientation, a particularly controversial area. “I think it’s been hard for groups to get funding to pursue it,” she says. “And maybe also taboo for various research groups to really focus on. So I think that the 23andMe platform is really conducive to doing research on sensitive topics because people are providing information anonymously from home. But that’s the request that came up again and again and again: ‘Can you study sexual orientation? Why aren’t you studying sexual orientation?’ So we were really excited to launch a study in that area.”

The company initiated its sexual orientation project about six months ago, and researchers are hoping that tens of thousands of LGBT folks take the genetic test and fill out the accompanying survey — the information from which allows 23andMe to see patterns among, for example, gay men or transgender women. They don’t know what they’ll find around gender identity yet, says Drabant, but “those are exactly the questions that we’re studying. We asked people about how they identify, including transgender male-to-female, female-to-male, and I think we kind of ask a question more broadly about identity, in terms of masculine and feminine.” Several thousand people have participated in the survey so far, though few identify as transgender.

As soon as the company has a big enough sample, it plans to make those results public, regardless of where they lead. “It’s a hot, sensitive topic,” Drabant says, “and I think that, no matter what comes of it, if we find genetic associations or if we don’t, [reaction] will be pretty heated. Our objective is to be objective. We feel that this is research that needs to be conducted, that’s neglected, that’s important to do. And that we’re in a position to do it.”

She says more and more people are taking their test results to their doctors to incorporate into care plans, particularly risk factors and increased sensitivity to particular medications — information that can save lives. Drabant says that while some older physicians might not have had genetic training in medical school and thus find the information to be outside their normal practice, many physicians would like to incorporate 23andMe directly into their work.

“Doctors see the value in having the complete genetic picture as part of their medical profile,” Drabant says. “My speculation is that, in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see that grow and grow because the utility of genetic information will become greater. We’ll make more discoveries about genes related to drugs and conditions. And my hope is that physicians will get more training in how to interpret and work with genetic information.”

So far 23andMe has heard from people whose lives have been saved thanks to the information in their genetic tests as well as adopted children who have found their biological families (one function of the ancestry part of the tests allows you to see other users who are biologically related to you — almost everyone will find fifth or sixth cousins). Researchers have made some discoveries on the lighter side — like if you’re likely to grow back hair or whether cilantro will taste like soap to you — and, Drabant adds, “then we have findings about Parkinson’s, rare blood cancers, and myeloproliferative neoplasms.”

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