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DNA Testing at Home

Student-run Acorn Genetics creates a genetic analysis tool that maintains a user’s privacy.

genome lock
Acorn Genetics team members, from left, Jakub Wolsza, Ana Cornell and Mark Ogarek.

Winter 2021

Ana Cornell wanted to learn about her genetic background but shied away from trying a commercially available DNA test kit because of privacy concerns. She couldn’t find a test that could be taken and analyzed at home. So the McCormick School of Engineering junior set out to build one.

DNA testing services allow more people to learn about their genealogy, genetic makeup and associated health risks, and other information. However, privacy concerns loom large, as genetic testing companies often make money by sharing their user’s genetic information with third parties.

To address this issue, Cornell led the creation of GenomeLock, a DNA testing kit that turns a simple cheek swab into usable, private genetic data without the user’s DNA ever leaving the home.

Here’s how it works: First, users take a cheek swab, which they run through the kit’s DNA extractor and then place in GenomeLock’s polymerase chain reaction machine — a thermal cycler that uses enzymes to amplify the segment of DNA being analyzed.

The sample is then inserted into a handheld genetic sequencer, which analyzes the data and produces results.

Users can order enzymes from Cornell’s startup, GenomeLock-maker Acorn Genetics. They can use those enzymes to test for certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

After the DNA sequencer finishes, the analytics can be viewed on a computer. Users learn about any abnormalities found, if they are at risk for a certain disease and recommendations for action moving forward.

“We’re finding out that people have genetic predispositions to certain diseases,” Cornell says, “but if they adjust their lifestyle in a certain way, they can cause epigenetic changes that could strongly decrease the chance of getting that disease.”

GenomeLock is the first product from Acorn Genetics, which was formed in the Principles of Entrepreneurship course taught by industrial engineering and management sciences professor Michael Marasco. The company currently consists of four core members: Cornell, sophomores Jakub Wolsza and Mark Ogarek and junior Kate Conner.

Acorn Genetics serves as an early steppingstone to Cornell’s goal of making health care more accessible and transparent. For her work, she earned a Propel Program grant, awarded to female entrepreneurs at The Garage, Northwestern’s student entrepreneurship incubator. She was also was named to Chicago Inno’s “25 Under 25.”

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