Clinical laboratory scientist who aided in the investigation compared DNA test results with publicly available genetic information
In an interesting twist in the solving of crime, genetic test results—along with help from a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS) turned amateur genealogist—guided relatives of Melissa Highsmith to her whereabouts after she was allegedly kidnapped as a toddler over half a century ago. According to The Guardian, the CLS helped locate Melissa by “interpreting the key DNA results and mining publicly available records.”
Highsmith’s abduction was one of the oldest missing person cases in the country and demonstrates how clinical laboratory skills can be applied outside the laboratory to help solve other problems—in this case, helping a family search for a kidnapped daughter—using genetic testing technologies that until recently were not available to the general public.
Thanks to a 23andMe at-home DNA test—and a tenacious clinical laboratory scientist/amateur genealogist—Melissa Highsmith (shown above at time of kidnapping and today) has been reunited with her birth family. This shows how genetic testing is being used in remarkable ways outside of the clinical laboratory. (Photo copyright: Highsmith family/People.)
Back in 1971, Melissa’s mother, Alta Apantenco, placed an advertisement in a local newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, to hire a babysitter to care for her 21-month-old daughter. Apantenco hired Ruth Johnson to babysit her daughter without meeting the woman in person. Because Apantenco had to be at work, the child was handed over to Johnson by Apantenco’s roommate. The babysitter then allegedly abducted Melissa and disappeared with her.
Melissa’s family reported her missing to the police and searched for the snatched baby for more than 51 years. The family even organized a Facebook page called “Finding Melissa Highsmith” and sought outside assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in locating their lost relative, according to the New York Post.
The police and the FBI also got involved in the case, but few leads emerged over the decades.
Then, in September of 2022, Melissa’s family received a new lead regarding her location based on her father’s 23andMe DNA test results. Those results, along with a birthmark and date of birth, confirmed that Melissa was alive and well and residing in the Charleston, South Carolina area.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Melissa was reunited with her mother, her father Jeffrie Highsmith, and two of her four siblings at a church in Fort Worth. She hopes to meet her remaining two siblings over the Christmas holidays.
“I can’t describe my feelings. I’m so happy to see my daughter that I didn’t ever think I would see again,” Apantenco told Saint Paul, Minnesota, television station KSTP.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” said Melissa’s sister Victoria Garner in a family statement. “I was overjoyed, and I’m still walking around in a fog trying to comprehend that my sister [was] right in front of me and that we found her,” The Guardian reported.
Clinical Laboratory Scientist Aids in the Investigation
The 23andMe test results alerted the family to the existence of a few unknown relatives that could be connected to the DNA of Melissa’s father. The family then contacted a genealogist and clinical laboratory scientist from Minnesota named Lisa Jo Schiele to help them interpret the results and potentially locate the missing woman. Schiele compared the DNA results with public records to help find Melissa Highsmith.
“I was able to use what we call traditional genealogy to find marriage records and things like that to find where Melissa was right now,” Schiele told KSTP. “At first glance, you look at these matches, but I’m like, ‘Holy cow, is this too good to be true?’ I’m very happy to help them navigate all of this.”
One of Melissa’s sisters, Sharon Highsmith, stated that her mother experienced deep feelings of guilt after Melissa’s abduction and had even faced accusations that she had something to do with the disappearance of her daughter.
“My mom did the best she could with the limited resources she had. She couldn’t risk getting fired, so she trusted the person who said they’d care for her child,” Sharon said in a family statement. “I’m grateful we have vindication for my mom,” The Guardian reported.
“I keep having to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake,” Melissa, who now resides in Fort Worth, told KSTP.
“It’s a miracle,” Apantenco said.
“A Christmas miracle,” Melissa added.
Due to the statute of limitations, which expired 20 years after Melissa turned 18, the babysitter who allegedly took Melissa cannot be criminally prosecuted.
“I’m angry our family was robbed for 51 years,’’ Melissa told Fort Worth news station WFAA.
This remarkable story illustrates how clinical laboratory skills combined with genetic testing results can be used outside of medical laboratory testing purposes to aid in solving criminal cases and other mysteries involving missing people.
Further advances in DNA testing combined with genetic databases that include DNA from greater numbers of people could result in more reunions involving missing persons who were identified because of genetic matching.
Citizens claiming racial diversity increased by 276% in the 2020 census, leading experts to wonder if racial diversity is increasing or if people are simply electing to identify as such and how this trend will affect healthcare
The last US census showed an interesting change compared to previous census surveys. More Americans identified themselves as racially diverse than in previous censuses. Scientists in multiple specialty areas—including demographics, sociology, genetics, and more—are asking why.
According to federal Census Bureau data, in the most recent census, people who identify as more than one race rose by 276%! Scientists are only just beginning to hypothesize the reasons for this increase, but three potential factors, NPR reported, have emerged:
More children are being born to parents who identify with racial groups that are different from one another.
People are reconsidering what they want the government to know about their identities, according to Duke University Press.
The increased incidence of DNA testing for cultural heritage may be an additional factor in the different ways people identified themselves during the census, driving its popularity, NPR noted. More people are purchasing at-home DNA tests to learn where their ancestors lived and came from, and their family’s genealogy.
“Exactly how big of an effect these tests had on census results is difficult to pin down,” NPR reported. “But many researchers agree that as the cost of at-home kits fell in recent years, they have helped shape an increasing share of the country’s ever-changing ideas about the social construct that is race.”
How the Census Alters Government Policy
Pew Research noted that, although only about 16% of Americans have taken an ancestry DNA test, the marketing efforts of “companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which operates the AncestryDNA service, should not be underestimated,” NPR reported. They have a wide reach, and those efforts could be impacting how people think about race and ethnic identity.
For most of human history, social experience and contemporary family history have been the drivers of how people identified themselves. However, low-cost DTC genetic testing may be changing that.
One concern that sociologists and demographers have about this trend is that the US census is an important tool in policy, civil rights protections, and even how researchers measure things like healthcare access disparities.
“You’re going to have a lot more people who are not part of marginalized groups in terms of their social experiences claiming to be part of marginalized groups. When it comes to understanding discrimination or inequality, we’re going have very inaccurate estimates,” says Wendy Roth, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, told NPR.
They developed the “genetic options” theory, “to account for how genetic ancestry tests influence consumers’ ethnic and racial identities.” They wrote, “The rapid growth of genetic ancestry testing has brought concerns that these tests will transform consumers’ racial and ethnic identities, producing “geneticized” identities determined by genetic knowledge.”
However, a more healthcare-related motivation for taking a DTC DNA test is to learn about one’s potential risks for familial chronic health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, etc.
“Whether that occurs through your primary care doctor, your large integrated health network, or your payor, I think there will be profound changes in society’s tolerance for using genetics for prevention,” he told GenomeWeb.
Regardless, as Dark Daily reported in 2020, sales of genetic tests from Ancestry and 23andMe show the market is cooling. Thus, with less than 20% of the population having taken DNA tests, and with sales slowing, genetics testing may not affect responses on the next US census, which is scheduled for April 1, 2030.
In the meantime, clinical laboratory managers should recognize how and why more consumers are interested in ordering their own medical laboratory tests and incorporate this trend into their lab’s strategic planning.
23andMe executives say they plan to leverage their database of millions of customer genotypes ‘tohelp accelerate personalized healthcare at scale,’ a key goal of precision medicine
In what some financial analysts believe may be an indication that popularity of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing among customers who seek info on their ethnic background and genetic predisposition to disease is waning, personal genomics/biotechnology company 23andMe announced it has completed its merger with Richard Branson’s VG Acquisition Corp. (NYSE:VGAC) and is now publicly traded on NASDAQ.
According to a 23andMe news release, “The combined company is called 23andMe Holding Co. and will be traded on The Nasdaq Global Select Market (“NASDAQ”) beginning on June 17, 2021, under the new ticker symbol ‘ME’ for its Class A Common shares and ‘MEUSW’ for its public warrants.”
Now that it will file quarterly earnings reports, pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will have the opportunity to learn more about how 23andMe serves the consumer market for genetic types and how it is generating revenue from its huge database containing the genetic sequences from millions of people.
After raising $600 million and being valued at $3.5 billion, CNBC reported that 23andMe’s shares rose by 21% during its first day of trading.
Might the quick rise in its stock price be a sign that 23andMe—with its database of millions of human genotypes—has found a lucrative path forward in drug discovery?
23andMe says that 80% of its 10.7 million genotyped customers have consented to sharing their data for research, MedCity News reported, adding that, “The long-term focus for 23andMe still remains using all of its accumulated DNA data to strike partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.”
Time for a New Direction at 23andMe
While 23andMe’s merger is a recent development, it is not a surprising direction for the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, which launched in 2006, to go.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, both 23andMe and its direct competitor Ancestry had experienced a decline in direct-to-consumer testing sales of at-home DNA and genealogy test kit orders. This decline only accelerated during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, 23andMe Therapeutics, a division focused on research and drug development, has been on the rise, Bloomberg News reported. On its website, 23andMe said it has ongoing studies in oncology, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases.
“It’s kind of an ideal time for us,” Wojcicki told Bloomberg News.
“As an early investor, I have seen 23andMe develop into a company with enormous growth potential. Driven by Anne’s vision to empower consumers, and with our support, I’m excited to see 23andMe make a positive difference to many more people’s lives,” he added.
Report Bullish on Consumer Genetic Testing
Despite the apparent saturation of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing market, and consumers’ concerns about privacy, Infiniti Research reported that worldwide sales of DTC tests “are poised to grow by $1.39 bn during 2021-2025, progressing at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of over 16% during the forecast period.”
“This study identifies the advances in next-generation genetic sequencing as one of the prime reasons driving the direct-to-consumer genetic testing market growth during the next few years. Also, reduction in the cost of services and growing adoption of online service platforms will lead to sizable demand in the market,” the report states.
Clinical laboratory leaders will want to stay abreast of 23andMe rise as a publicly-traded company. It will be interesting to see if Wojcicki’s vision about moving therapies into clinics in five years comes to fruition.