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Preserving Memories – DNA Storage in the Funeral Profession

Preserving Memories – DNA Storage in the Funeral Profession

By Kerry Munday

DNA Analysis

DNA Analysis is becoming quite the trend.  I’ve seen a number of commercials on TV from a company named 23andMe, a personal genome testing company who provide kits so you can send in a saliva sample which allows them to analyze your DNA and produce several reports outlining your inherited risk factors of disease, inherited traits, ancestry and genealogy.  The appeal for this company is its low cost.

DNA Storage in Funeral Homes

Another trend I’ve been reading about on the news is DNA storage in the Funeral profession. Many news articles have come out recently describing a company named DNA Memorial, which partners with Funeral Homes to obtain DNA from the deceased, a service which is offered to families for a small cost.  As you know, cremation destroys DNA forever, and exhumation of the deceased in order to obtain DNA is not only costly, but emotionally distressing for families. Also, embalming can render the test inaccurate.  So obtaining DNA right away at the Funeral Home is timely.

DNA Memorial is a company based in Thunder Bay, ON, Canada.  It was founded by Ryan Lehto, who did research on the retrieval of ancient DNA from mummies and ancient life forms for his Master’s Degree at Lakehead University.  Because of his research, the company has expertise in handling the degradation of DNA.  They started offering services to Funeral Homes in recent years, even appearing on Dragon’s Den in 2013.  They also have a patent pending on a process to bind the DNA to a substance which can be stored at room temperature indefinitely.  A number of Funeral Homes in Canada and the US are currently using DNA Memorial.

There are many other DNA storage companies that partner with Funeral Homes around the world.  To obtain the DNA samples, Funeral Directors are given kits to retrieve non-invasive samples of hair or saliva.  In the past, blood or skin was sometimes used instead.  The samples are preserved by the DNA storage company and given back to the family in a vial, or they are stored at the company’s facility.  Costs to obtain the DNA are between $300 to $350, and around $450 after embalming for the companies that offer that service.  Obtaining and storing the DNA usually costs between $600 and $700. Families also have an option to purchase DNA jewellery as a memorial, and the DNA can be extracted from the jewellery at a later date if they wish.

There are several uses for stored DNA.  The DNA can be used to determine genetically predisposed medical conditions, trace ancestry, find relatives or adoptees, learn about inherited traits, and even uncover infidelity.  

DNA storage has been offered for years, going back to the early 1990’s.  Some early adopters from the United States include GeneLink, which started doing business in the states in 1996, andDNA Analysis Inc., which started in 1998 and is still providing services. 

Privacy and Ethics

There is a lot of debate regarding the value of DNA storage from deceased people.  Some feel it is extremely important to preserve the DNA, while others question the ethics of the practice. 

One person who supports DNA storage is to Avi Lasarow, founder and director of DNA Bioscience Today from the UK.   He believes Funeral Homes not offering DNA storage to families may be held liable, since cremation and embalming can destroy or affect DNA. 

In the US especially, questions around the ethics of DNA storage and privacy concerns have come up.  In the event of a death, can the family obtain DNA from the deceased without getting or having their permission?  Although this hasn’t come up in the courts yet, if it does, could Funeral Homes face costly lawsuits?  Also, when geneticists search for a gene for a rare disease, they often need to study a few generations rather than one individual.  If families are aware of that though, they could ensure that the DNA is preserved from a few generations, by obtaining DNA from the deceased and getting their own DNA tested. 

DNA Analysis, Revisited

Which brings me back to 23AndMe.  The reason I’ve been seeing all their commercials recently is because they have only started offering services in Canada, after being blocked by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from reporting inherited risk factors of disease to people in the US.  The FDA determined that the company’s DNA retrieval kit is a medical device and felt the test results they reported are not accurate, as they are only based on a few genes, and most diseases involve a complex interaction between various genetic and lifestyle risk factors. Unfortunately, 23AndMe chose to ignore the FDA for some time, which hasn’t helped their reputation.  The controversy may negatively impact the public perception toward DNA storage and testing, which would be a shame.  A more accurate and costly process of discovering inherited risk factors of disease is called DNA sequencing, which looks at all the genes rather than just a few.  Luckily, the costs for DNA sequencing are decreasing, which should make it more consumer-friendly. 

The future of DNA storage and testing certainly looks promising.  Although I think this is more than just a trend, only time will tell.  What do you think?

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