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Giving away your DNA

The risks and rewards of genetic testing.

HOT SPRINGS (KATV) -

Personal genetic testing is more popular than ever.

It has become so easy and inexpensive to send in a sample of your DNA that many are doing it without much thought.

Tonight we take a look at the risks and rewards of giving away your DNA.

Reporter Jason Pederson’s interest in DNA testing started two months ago after he visited Virginia.

153 years-ago the Civil War ended when Union troops cut off a retreating General Lee in Appomattox Court House in central Virginia.

Surrender papers were signed by Lee and General Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean. McLean 's home was chosen because it was the nicest in the small village.

Over spring break Pederson visited the McLean home and Appomattox Court House and shared photos on Facebook.

"This is it,” says Jim McLean looking at a small pile of reel-to-reel home movies and a VHS cassette. “Me at El Dorado. Mexico. But nothing to do with the McLeans."

McLean of Hot Springs saw Pederson’s Facebook post and it rekindled in him a desire to know more about his past.

Since he was a boy he has been told that he is a distant relative of Wilmer McLean...but he has nothing to prove it.

"I know there is a database somewhere,” speculates McLean. “Somebody has put some information into a database about the McLean family. You know...I know that. The internet is a lifeline. But I want definitive answers."

Would submitting his DNA to a pair of genetic testing companies help provide those answers?

Jim decided it was worth a shot.

"Alright folks...here we go,” says McLean opening the first DNA test kit. “Long-awaited answers. Bring it on."

Both DNA kits were purchased at Walgreens.

"This is kind of gross folks," says McLean spitting into a tube.

The “23 and Me” saliva collection kit sells for $30.00 and another $70.00 for testing and ancestry information. If you want health information that will cost you an additional $100.00.

The other kit...from “Home DNA”...uses cheek swabs and costs $25.00 and another $99.00 to get results (but no option for health info).

Last month a DNA database was used to help catch the Golden State Killer.

But most look to such tests not to get answers to crimes but answers to questions about personal health or history.

"The amount of information that is contained in our DNA and the implications of finding out about our DNA can be very overwhelming,” says Dr. Thomas Burrow. “And also be very confusing."

Dr. Burrow is a clinical geneticist with UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital who challenges patients to consider an important question prior to DNA testing.

"Why do they want that information?” asks Dr. Burrow. “And understand that you could get information that you don't necessarily want to know. Including the risk of having a disease that could be life-shortening and also you can find non-paternity...meaning the person you think is your father is not actually your father."

Burrow says other risks associated with giving away your DNA include the possibility that a DNA database could be hacked, You may get results that you don't understand or misinterpret, creating false fears or false reassurance. And your DNA information could one day be used against you.

"One of the things that I do when talking with my patients about genetic testing is thoroughly discuss the risks that it might have on their future ability to get life insurance, long-term disability and long-term care insurance,” says Dr. Burrow.

(NOTE: Dr. Burrow says that there are laws in place that protect individuals from having DNA testing used against a person when it comes to obtaining or keeping employment and health insurance).

In the end these DNA tests were not able to answer Jim McLean's questions about his family tree and whether he is a descendant of Wilmer McLean and linked to the home where the Civil War ended.

McLean did learn the names of over 1,000 possible distant cousins...others who have submitted DNA samples and share a strand or two of his DNA.

His family history will have to be determined by his own research...and all the stories he can get from his aging parents or those possible distant relatives.

"They're hard to...they're few and far...to...(hmmm)...to get a good story," says McLean of his efforts to learn more from his parents.

"It's hard to get...so if you're going to get answers you're going to have to get them on your own."

"From now on," agrees McLean.

In Jim's opinon the “23 and Me” kit was better than the “Home DNA” kit, but he says he has learned much more about his family tree on the random weekends when Ancestry.com has offered free weekends on their site.

And during this process Pederson learned something new about his family tree. In order to get your long list of distant relatives you need to share the names of your grandparents and where each was born. Pederson learned from his father that his grandmother was born in Virginia. In Appomattox Court House…where his visit two months earlier had caught Jim McLean’s eye and ultimately triggered both of their interest in DNA testing.

Air date: May 18th, 2018

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