Genetic Test Kits: Predictions of the Future or Pseudo-Science Scam?

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In testimony to Congress last week, the General Accounting Office (GAO) thoroughly debunked the marketing of direct-to-consumer genetic test kits, charging that the biotech companies who peddle this high-tech snake-oil scam are guilty of providing “misleading test results” backed by “deceptive marketing and other questionable practices.”

If you have purchased genetic testing from a direct-to-consumer company (ie, not through a physician)and would like to help take action to stop these abusive practices, please email the Center for Environmental Health at charles@ceh.org.

Genetic test kits promise to give consumers who pony up $300 to $1,000 or more information about how their genes will predict their future. The kits promise to tell you whether you will contract certain diseases, give you suggestions for avoiding illness, and even promise to predict the abilities of your offspring (you might give birth to the next LeBron James!).

In 2006, the GAO sent DNA samples from five donors to four genetic test kit makers (there are dozens of internet companies that market the kits). For the latest report, the agency sent samples to four more companies. If DNA testing works, samples from the same person should have returned the same results (just as two labs should find the same person from the same set of fingerprints).

But the GAO’s experiment showed that DNA testing is nowhere near ready for prime-time. The different labs found different and even contradictory results for the same person (eg, one lab said the person’s risk for leukemia was high, another said it was low, a third said it was average). The test kit companies also provided information that was contradicted by the individual’s actual medical conditions. The GAO concluded that the kits provide high-paying consumers with information that is “medically unproven and so ambiguous as to be meaningless.”

The GAO also consulted outside experts who told the agency that “there are too many uncertainties and ambiguities in this type of testing to rely on any of the results.” The GAO also had their purported DNA donors call the test kit companies for consultation about the results: one company told a woman donor that the results suggested that she was “in the high risk of pretty much getting” breast cancer, a phony diagnostic claim that outside experts called “horrifying.”

In other words, for $300-$1,000, you can receive useless and potentially harmful information based on unproven and untested pseudo-science.

Alarmingly, now even leading Universities are jumping on the DNA testing bandwagon. The UC system is asking incoming freshman to voluntarily submit DNA for testing, just for a fun get-to-know you program. A state bill has been introduced to ban such programs, but test kits have already been mailed out to new students.

If you are a student entering UC and have received but not yet sent in a test kit, CEH would like to talk to you! Contact charles@ceh.org . And If you have purchased genetic testing from a direct-to-consumer company (ie, not through a physician)and would like to help take action to stop these abusive practices, please email the Center for Environmental Health at charles@ceh.org.

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