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TV Review: DNA Family Secrets

12 April 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1090

As a human geneticist I've always been interested in anything DNA-related, whether this is a book, research paper, film, or documentary. I never expected, however, that DNA would be the focus of a semi-documentary/semi-intellectual reality TV show, hosted by Stacey Dooley, of 'Glow Up: Britain's Next Make-Up Star' fame. I was, therefore, curious to watch 'DNA Family Secrets', which recently aired on BBC2.

The programme is similar to ITV's 'Long Lost Family' but with a DNA twist. Most of the stories told by DNA Family Secrets involve people who are desperate to find out more about their parents - who were either not in the picture, gave them up for adoption, or were the donors of gametes that created them. Some of the participants are hoping to find relatives such as half-siblings or cousins, or better determine their ethnicity. There are, however, some other participants who want to know whether they carry mutations in genes that could cause lethal late onset diseases, or devastating conditions such as blindness.

Stacey Dooley narrates and is there to chat and support the show's participants through their journey of discovery, along with Professor Turi King from the University of Leicester, and a group of social workers and genetic counsellors, most of whom we never get to meet. The ones that we do meet have only minimum airtime, compared to Dooley and Professor King.
The concept of DNA Family Secrets is unusual, and one would argue educational for the general public. Professor King, an expert in determining genealogy through DNA testing, is a good communicator and demonstrates true empathy towards the individuals that sit down with her.

The conversations Professor King has with the show's participants provide an understanding to non-scientists on how a DNA test to determine genealogy takes place, what is a family tree, what is mitochondrial DNA and how it is inherited, and the fact that the Y chromosome has the 'gene for maleness'. Professor King and her team successfully provide answers, and most participants leave happy and well informed from their DNA testing. Those lucky enough to have long lost relatives tracked down are shown meeting up through the magic of Zoom. As expected, such meetings are emotional, but I am not sure how unique they are as a concept, especially considering that ITV’s 'Long Lost Family' has been presenting similar family reunions for many TV seasons.

Dooley also tries to be supportive when chatting to the participants, but her empathy somehow lacks. She appears rather wooden and standoffish, and in one instance she approaches a lady who was given up for adoption in a similar way to a lady who did not make it past the first round of 'Glow Up: Britain's Next Make-Up Star'.

I felt that the show falls short to appropriately deal with the stories revolving around people who are concerned that they have inherited a 'faulty' copy of a gene from one of their parents, which could lead to serious or even lethal diseases later on in life. Dooley is not a trained genetic counsellor and her lack of knowledge of the science of genetics was crystal clear when she chats to these people.

Serious conditions such as Huntington's, breast and ovarian cancer caused by the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, and mutations leading to blindness are addressed. In her chats with the people involved in these stories Dooley has a tendency to push them too hard to describe how they would feel if they were to find out that they were carriers of life-altering gene mutations, a conversation that should normally happen in the presence of a trained genetic counsellor, and not over a cup of coffee. Genetic counsellors do get involved and as expected, do their job brilliantly. Yet, no time throughout the show is spent on showcasing the importance of a genetic counsellor's role in supporting and explaining the consequences of a devastating genetic disorder to an individual who's undergoing testing for it.

I found watching DNA Family Secrets rather uninteresting. I found the stories involving the possible inheritance of serious genetic conditions particularly uncomfortable to watch. I could not fathom how anyone would agree to have cameras present when they are about to find out whether they may pass on Huntington's to their child, or whether they would need to undergo major surgery to reduce their chances of getting ovarian or breast cancer after they become 40. In my opinion BBC2 should have kept DNA Family Secrets relatively light and airy, focusing only on people looking for their long-lost family through DNA analysis, and stayed away from genetic conditions. Being a scientist and watching DNA Family Secrets made me wonder how far can a mainstream channel go just for the sake of TV ratings?

DNA Family Secrets
BBC |  12 February 2021
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