It is hard to quantify the impact of ‘role-model’ celebrities on the acceptance and uptake of genetic testing and bio-literacy, but it is surely significant.
Angelina Jolie is an Oscar-winning actress, Brad Pitt’s other half, mother, humanitarian, and now a “DNA celebrity”. The highest paid actress in Hollywood has a BRCA gene associated with an 81% risk of inherited breast cancer. She opted for radical surgery, a double mastectomy, in a highly-publicized decision widely covered by the media. She described her experiences in a 2013 New York Times op-ed piece and followed it up with a diary of her surgery.
She propelled the topic of familial breast cancer, female prophylactic surgery, and DNA testing to the fore. Her A-list voice sang out loud and clear. There is still a long way to go, but individuals can have an impact.
Researchers have quantified how well she changed opinions and spread knowledge about genetic testing for breast cancer. Breast cancer killed Jolie’s mother, grandmother and aunt. In this era of ‘actionable genomics’, women in similar situations should be aware of their options. Called the “Angelina Jolie Effect”, her story doubled the number of women seeking genetic testing (NHS referrals) for inherited forms of breast cancer.
Popular TV shows like Who do you think you are? uncover details of family histories long after the traditional genealogical paper trail dries up with DNA-testing. They rely on participation by celebrities. The mainstreaming of “DNA stories” is intriguing and inspiring. This is not only gripping TV, but also a way to whet the appetite of the public. Certainly, this is what Ancestry.com is banking on as it sponsors the show. The company 23andMe are also behind the show Finding Your Roots.
The host of Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote a book on the subject and titled it Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Yours. DNA testing is a particularly attractive option for those who have been orphaned or displaced from their line of ancestry, as in the case of those who are descended from slaves. Oprah Winfrey took a DNA test for the PBS show African American Lives and learned she is Kpelle (Liberia), Bamileke (Cameroon) and Bantu (Zambia).
Tyra Banks had the contestants on her show America’s Next Top Model DNA tested. Curiosity motivated her to explore her roots and locate the genetic origins of her exotic good looks. She found she is 79% African, 18% British and 6% Native American.
When actress and singer Vanessa Williams ordered a kit from Ancestry.com her results were widely reported in the popular media (e.g. Huffington Post). Unusual in being an African-American with blue eyes, she is a wonderful genetic mix. She says these results have inspired her to travel more to explore her diverse heritage. Her profile suggests she is “23% from Ghana, 17% from the British Isles, 15% from Cameroon, 12% Finnish, 11% Southern European, 7% Togo, 6% Benin, 5% Senegal and 4% Portuguese”.
The chance to unearth evidence of celebrity DNA has always been part of the intrigue of ancestry research. We are elated to find we are related to the rich and famous, royalty or one of the world’s intellectual giants. Both men and women can compare mitochondrial lineages and men can check Y chromosome lineages against the growing list of historical figures who have been genotyped by the DNA testing of direct descendents. Perhaps you have the Y-haplogroup E-Z830 of Einstein or the C3 (M217) of Ghengis Khan or the mitochondrial haplogroup H of Marie Antoinette? There are even DNA-testing kits designed only to tell you if you share DNA with famous people.
Other celebs are shaping the landscape of genomics from within. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (Alphabet) has a genetic risk of Parkinson’s disease and as a result decided to take action. His wife’s company, 23andMe, did the test that identified his mutation, and through it they have launched what is now the world’s largest study of Parkinson’s families. Working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, they built a cohort of DNA donors. While it is hoped the investment will pay off scientifically, it has certainly paid off financially. In early 2015, 23andMe sold this cohort data to GeneTech for $60 million.
Apple cofounder and CEO, Steve Jobs, helped jump start the personal genomics revolution. He was one of the first ever to have the genome of his cancer sequenced. The company that did the analysis, Foundation Medicine, is backed by Google and Gates, and is worth billions. Cancer sequencing starts at $5000 and Google is offering it as a perk to employees.
As genomics continues to seep into the mainstream, pioneering scientists are climbing the celebrity ladder. Considered an outside candidate for the world’s first trillionaire for his work reading and writing genomes, Craig Venter was the first individual to publish his own genome. Today he is the face of a luxury watch campaign by Jeager-LeCoultre.
The list of celebrity endorsements of DNA testing goes on and on, but in many ways, the new celebrity is DNA.
Featured image credit: Angelina Jolie, 2010 San Diego Comic Con. Photo by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.