What will my baby look like?
It’s a question expectant parents have had for centuries as they await the birth of their little one. Now, a new app co-founded by Calvert County resident Jennifer Lescallett is predicting the answer.
BabyGlimpse uses a couple’s individual DNA to explore everything from a baby’s potential hair and eye color to whether it will be lactose intolerant, will prefer sweet or salty snacks or will sneeze when it looks toward the sun. It’s one of the latest examples of a growing direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry, where companies market genetic tests to consumers and then work with labs to sequence, analyze and interpret the customer’s DNA.
“BabyGlimpse is sort of like the bright side of genetics,” said Lescallett, a mother of three and former genetics research associate. “We’ve coined it sunshine science. You get to look at the fun part of your potential future baby versus some of the scary stuff.”
Founders and users of the app say it provides entertainment while satisfying parents’ curiosity and educating them on how genetics work. But health care professionals say they have concerns about users’ privacy and lack of overall regulation in the field.
“Privacy is an ongoing and major concern for genetic health professionals,” said Natalie Beck, senior genetic counselor at the Johns Hopkins Institute of Genetic Medicine. “A company that is getting a DNA sample, even if they’re only assessing and revealing very targeted regions or genetic risk points for whatever they’re analyzing, they technically have somebody’s entire code.”
The idea for BabyGlimpse began in 2016, when Lescallett met Chris Glode, former vice president of digital products for Under Armour. Lescallett spent more than 20 years studying everything from chicken genes to DNA microarrays – tools used to uncover variants in DNA. But in 2016, she decided she was ready for a change. That summer, Lescallett said, she pitched using consumer genetics for health and fitness to executives at Under Armour.
“When [Lescallett] and I first started talking more frequently in the fall of 2016, it was absolutely brainstorming,” said Glode, a Colorado resident. “We were going through all the different categories of applications from health and fitness to pharmacogenomics to medical applications to family planning and just really thinking about all the things that were possible and taking inventory of what’s been done already.”
Genetic counselors can already test couples for recessive conditions that could put babies at risk for major medical or developmental complications. But no one had created an app using a couple’s DNA to show a baby’s potential traits and characteristics, Glode said.
“I just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a product that you could do that,” he said.
Glode left Under Armour in March. By April, he, Lescallett and colleague Ryan Trunck had founded Human Code, the maker of BabyGlimpse.
Here’s how BabyGlimpse works. A person buys the BabyGlimpse package, which includes two DNA kits, online for $259.98 – or $99.98 through Dec. 24. Once it arrives in the mail, each person spits into a collection tube. They then send their samples to a lab that sequences the users’ DNA. The human genome is made up of about three billion “letters” of DNA, Lescallett said. The lab sequences only part of the DNA that accounts for a little more than 1.5% of the entire genome. Variants in the DNA mean a baby may be more or less likely to have a certain characteristic or trait.
A few weeks later, Human Code sends users their results through the BabyGlimpse app (available only on iPhones and iPads or on the web). Users log in to view information about themselves, as well as how their genes could be passed on to their future baby. The initial “glimpse” shows users information about their region of ancestry, percent chance of baby having a certain hair color, eye color and skin tone, and as the baby ages, chance of preferring sweet or salty foods and chance of being a deep or restless sleeper.
The “insights” section expands upon the results, showing details for more than 20 traits.
“It’s a good way to just explain genetics to people,” Lescallett said. “You’re bringing two people together and these are some of the outcomes or probability of certain traits. … But we’re not sequencing babies, and we’re not doing carrier screenings or anything medical.”
Tyler and Afton Browning of Boulder, Colo., were among the first couples to use the app. They are expecting their first child together – a boy – in February.
“For us, we were very inquisitive and curious about the baby,” Tyler Browning said. “You run through all those rigorous tests throughout the pregnancy. This is more of a fun one that the whole family can be a part of.”
“[Tyler’s] got blond hair, and I’ve got brown hair,” Afton Browning said. “He has tan skin, and I’m really light and freckly. It was fun to imagine and figure out what he could look like. And I’m someone who has to have the answer to everything.”
Some of the results were expected, the couple said. The baby has a 50/50 chance of being lactose intolerant, which Tyler Browning was as a child. There’s also a good chance the baby will be taller than his 5-foot, 11-inch dad, given Afton Browning has a history of family members being more than 6 feet tall.
But other results surprised the couple. Despite Tyler’s tan skin, his ancestry traces to Germany and England. As a result, the baby has a high chance of having a fair skin tone, Afton Browning said. And despite Afton Browning’s straight hair, results showed the baby would likely have curly hair.
“I looked back when I was at my grandparents’ house after we got the glimpse, and I was looking back at baby pictures, and of course, I had the curliest head of hair when I was little,” Afton Browning said. “I didn’t remember that. It was kind of cool to see that that might carry through.”
Accuracy and privacy concerns
Throughout the app, BabyGlimpse stresses DNA is only part of the story. Environment, nutrition and lifestyle choices can also impact traits, Lescallett said. For example, genetics determine only 60 to 80 percent of a person’s height, she said.
“What your DNA is, your baseline, doesn’t indicate your destiny,” she said. “There’s lots more to discover and lots more to understand, even about the genetic component.”
Beck agreed but urged users to consider what they may be giving up when they share their DNA with private companies. There are no federal regulations in place for how private companies use the data, how they store it, who they share it with or if they can sell it, she said.
“The challenge we all have being in the genetic health field, is that there’s a lot of power in somebody’s genome and your genetic code,” Beck said. “You’re potentially giving a private company the most identifying unique part of yourself, and we actually don’t understand all of it yet.”
Both Human Code and the lab that sequences users’ DNA have privacy policies in place that require consent before using or sharing personal data, Lescallett said.
In addition, BabyGlimpse kits should not replace medical screenings and prenatal ultrasounds, Beck said.
“None of these direct-to-consumer tests are diagnostic,” she said. “None of them are a crystal ball, and none of them can diagnose anything specifically.”
Still, Beck said BabyGlimpse does a good job providing users with background on how genetics work. The app also connects users with a certified genetic counselor for more in-depth questions.
Overall, the Brownings said they are happy they used the app to learn more about their soon-to-be born son.
“It was a fun experience,” Tyler Browning said. “You not only get information about your history but also, it’s just a unique process to go through.”
And if the baby doesn’t look or act like what the app predicted, that’s OK, they said.
“He’s going to be who he is either way,” Afton Browning said. “This whole process, it’s not specifically for the baby, not to define who he is. It was more for us and our families to just have fun during the nine-month process of waiting to meet him.”