Personal genomics company 23andMe has revealed that a lab mix-up resulted in as many as 96 customers receiving the wrong data. If you have a 23andMe account you can see the formal announcement of the problem here, and I’ve pasted the full text at the end of this post.
Still upset I checked family inheritance and noticed my daughter shared with me, and then I checked my son’s. He was not a match for any of us. I checked his haplogroup’s and they were different from ours. I started screaming. A month before my son was born two local hospitals had baby switches. I panicked and I checked over and over. My kid’s were sitting at the computer because we all wanted to see the results. My son laughed but he looked upset. I called my sister in tears.
However, this incident serves as a canary in the personal genomics coal-mine – a warning of the challenges that lie ahead for companies in ensuring that massive, complex genetic data-sets are presented accurately to consumers.
It’s also a useful reminder to personal genomics consumers to not take their results for granted. The process between spitting into a cup and viewing your genetic results online involves multiple steps where things can go wrong, ranging from errors in sample tracking (the most pernicious and difficult to correct), through genotyping problems (usually much easier to spot), to errors in data analysis and display.
In general the odds of a given genetic data-point being wrong are very low, but they’re sufficiently far above zero to warrant caution in making too much out of any single result – mind you, given the extremely small effect sizes of most of the variants currently assayed by personal genomics companies, that’s good advice anyway. Certainly it would be a good idea for customers to seek independent validation of any result if they intend to use it to guide serious health or lifestyle decisions.
But the most important piece of advice for personal genomics customers is to engage with your data. Aldhous only detected these anomalies because he was exploring his own genetic data in multiple ways, cross-checking it against both other data and his own (informed) expectations, and was persistent enough to follow up on the strange results he found.
That’s a good example for other personal genomics customers to follow: rather than being a passive recipient of genetic forecasts, dig into your data and see if it makes sense, and keep asking questions until it does. In addition to making it more likely that you’ll pick up any errors in your results, you’ll also develop a much deeper understanding both of the nature of genetics and of your own genome.
Here’s the full announcement from 23andMe:
We recently determined that a number of new 23andMe customer samples were incorrectly processed by our contracted lab. We want to clarify what happened with the sample errors, how it happened and what we’re doing to prevent it from happening again. Providing each and every one of our customers with accurate data is 23andMe’s number one priority, and we fully realize the gravity of this incident.
Up to 96 customers may have received and viewed data that was not their own. Upon learning of the mix-ups, we immediately identified all customers potentially affected, notified them of the problem and removed the data from their accounts. The lab is now concurrently conducting an investigation and re-processing the samples of the affected customers and their accurate results will be posted early next week. We expect the investigation will be complete over the next several days and we will provide further details when we have them.
We are currently putting additional procedures in place that will add an extra layer of safeguards to help assure that similar incidents do not occur in the future. We are deliberating on a process that would include removing manual steps at the lab, completely automating the sample analyses, and implementing further checks of the data before it gets loaded into customer accounts. Please be assured that our testing laboratory’s processes comply with strict professional, regulatory, and corporate quality assurance standards for ensuring that all laboratory test results are accurate. The laboratory will adopt corrective action as warranted based on the findings of the investigation.
The science behind 23andMe’s personal genetics service remains proven and sound. We recognize that this is a very serious issue and your trust is of the utmost importance. We hope that this helps clarify what has happened and what we are doing to prevent these problems in the future. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any further questions. We appreciate your comments and feedback.