DNA Matchmaking: Move Over, Cupid.

by | Feb 14, 2021 | Fun, Genetic Testing

Based on a 2020 survey by dating app Plenty of Fish, 90% of US-based daters feel the chemistry, not attractiveness, is the key to a lasting successful relationship. Genetic matchmaking sites that offer DNA testing to predict biological compatibility (i.e.: chemistry) couldn’t agree more.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we are taking a peek at these direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests and the science behind DNA–based dating.

Genetic Compatibility

Most DNA matchmaking sites aim to predict romantic chemistry between two people by looking at how similar (or dissimilar) their HLA (immune system) genes are. Studies show the more variation the better, that is, opposites attract.

The idea dates back to 1976 when researchers found male mice are more likely to be drawn to the scent of female mice with different immune gene profiles.

In 1995, Swiss biologist Claus Wedekind tested this theory in humans. His, now famous, “Sweaty T-shirt Experiments” showed that female college students (not taking oral contraceptives) preferred the smell of t-shirts worn by male students with HLA genes variants unlike their own.

And, this is the scientific basis for DNA matchmaking.

Companies like DNA Romance or GenePartner offer DNA testing (or raw data analysis) for a panel of HLA variants to predict your romantic chemistry (or genetic compatibility) with others.

Instant Chemistry also looks at four genes that influence personality and emotional behavior, like the serotonin transporter thought to influence happiness and well-being.

Proceed, with Caution

Scientists say using HLA variants to predict attraction remains theoretical and further study is needed. In fact, exactly how opposite HLA profiles trigger olfactory cues is still unknown. And, while some studies support Dr. Wedekind’s findings, in a random sample of married couples from the International HapMap project, there was no significant difference in their HLA profiles.

Furthermore, experts warn attraction is too complicated to base it on a few immune system genes. If we are going to try to understand the biology of attraction, we need a broader whole genome approach and we need to expand the research beyond heterosexual couples.

Whole Genome Dating

Harvard geneticist, George Church, is taking a different approach to DNA compatibility he calls ‘whole genome dating’. Instead of looking at ‘attraction genes’, his new dating app DigiD8 uses DNA analysis to rule out matches between people who carry the same recessively inherited diseases. Currently the panel consists of 121 severe childhood diseases.

A recessively inherited disease occurs when a child inherits a pair of disease-causing mutations, one from each parent. In this case, the parents are both carriers of the disease. Carriers of recessive diseases usually have no symptoms.

The plan; the app will run in the background of existing online dating sites. Users who opt-in to DigiD8 DNA testing will only be matched with those who are a genetically ‘safe’ (i.e.: compatible) match, without learning any details of their DNA results.

The app, still in its infancy, has been met by controversy, raising eyebrows that the aim to eliminate certain diseases is a form of eugenics.

 

Regulatory Oversight

In the US, DTC DNA matchmaking tests do not require FDA authorization because they are low risk genetic tests, similar to ancestry testing or wellness testing.

“In general, direct-to-consumer tests for non-medical, general wellness, or low risk medical purposes are not reviewed by the FDA before they are offered.” FDA, Dec 2019

 While there is no regulatory oversight to scrutinize what ‘recreational’ consumer genomics companies say about their test and how well it works (i.e.: claims), it is important for test companies to represent their DNA test products accurately and in an understandable way.

Transparency about test purpose, limitations and issues related to privacy will build public awareness and trust in the emerging field of consumer genomics.

 

Whether you’re preparing for an FDA pre-market submission or simply want to make consumer-driven and meaningful improvements to your content, we’ve got you covered with our iterative user comprehension process. To schedule a consultation with SoundRocket’s genetic testing experts, contact us here!

Currently, the FDA only regulates true direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests, which have no health care provider involved either before or after testing. Consumer-initiated, physician-mediated genetic tests are considered lab developed tests (LDTs), which currently do not require FDA oversight. 

 

Our Study Design

Our study was designed to simulate the experience of an everyday person who is considering doing a health-related genetic test. For this reason, we only reviewed website contents presented to a consumer before ordering a test. By limiting our data collection to pre-test content, instead of digging around or contacting the companies to fill in missing data points, gaps in public-facing information that consumers use to make ‘informed’ decisions were revealed.  

Also, while a genetic counselor supervised the project, a research assistant (RA) conducted most of the website investigations. The RA was familiar enough with genetics and genetic testing to understand and identify the information presented on the websites, but has not had the clinical exposure that might create bias from knowing how specific tests work “behind-the-scenes”. 

 

To Sum Up

We set out to understand the landscape of health-related consumer genomics testing from the public perspective. By limiting our research (by design) to public-facing pre-test website content, we could not complete our data collection as set out in the protocol. However, this uncovered an important observation: consumer genomics websites are highly variable in content, readability and ease of use. 

This begs the question, if we can’t find basic test information on a consumer genomics website, how does a consumer have enough information to make an informed choice about testing? 

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, where we will dig into our study findings and reveal our most interesting observations.  

 

 

As experts in FDA user comprehension studies for consumer genomics companies seeking 510(k) clearance, we are interested in how everyday people access and understand health content that is meant for them. If you need help optimizing your consumer-directed health communications, we’ve got the in-house expertise and experience to meet your needs. Let’s chat

About the Author

Jill Furnival

Jill Furnival is a certified genetic counselor and science writer based in Toronto, Canada. When she’s not helping people better understand genetics, you may find her walking her dog, or in downward dog! She joined SoundRocket in Fall 2020 to consult on user comprehension studies for the FDA authorization of direct-to-consumer genetic tests.