Free genetic testing: A blueprint for saving black lives?

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If you could, would you want to know whether you will develop diabetes in your lifetime? Would you want to know long before you were even diagnosed?

The founders of 23andMe are working to make this possible, and for free. The small company offers personalized genetic testing and, starting this month, will waive their $399 fee for adults of African descent as part of a national project called Roots into the Future.

The project aims to collect 10,000 DNA samples in the hopes of pinpointing the genetic factors of diseases prevalent in the black community. The initiative partners with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

The initiative kicked off at the National Urban League Conference in Boston, where 23andMe tested 2,500 conference attendees.

In 2006, genetic testing gained popularity when Gates began the series African American Lives on PBS, which traced the genetics of notable African-Americans like Maya Angelou, Tina Turner and Morgan Freeman. However, that was based solely on uncovering ancestry.

Roots into the Future instead wants to fuse genetics and medicine to give people a glimpse into the future and, as a result, the power to make informed decisions about their health. And, to bring this power to the black community.

A recent study in the journal Nature confirms what geneticists have said for years: that that ethnic minorities are not adequately represented in research.

By making genetic testing free, the California biotech company links these advances to African-Americans who typically would not have the economic means to participate.