We’re being offered the chance to take charge of our health with DNA tests that claim to work out the probability of developing certain diseases. Are they a valuable insight into our future health, or a dangerous folly?
Direct to consumer genetic testing is a service that uses a bit of your bodily fluid (usually saliva) to read your DNA code.
The company offering the service then looks for specific patterns in your DNA that relate to the probability of developing certain diseases.
The crystal ball of genetic tests
In a way, this sounds both exciting and useful. What can my genes tell me about my future? Will this knowledge help me alter my lifestyle to stop the development of a disease in the future?
For example, one company offers a screening test to see if you’re likely to develop diabetes. Surely it’d be good to know this in advance, as you could then change your diet and work on the bulge in a bid to prevent it?
Well, no. Closer inspection reveals that the link between different versions of genes and the probability of developing a given disease are not very clear at all. In July the US government investigated these tests and found conflicting results.
For instance, one researcher was told that he had a below average, average, and above average chance of developing prostate cancer by different companies looking at the same DNA.
Home genetic tests a dangerous rip-off
But perhaps these tests are just a bit of fun and I’m taking them far too seriously. I would say not. At between £100 and £1,000 a pop, these tests would be an expensive bit of fun.
Combine this high price tag with the tests’ marketing, this expensive bit of fun also becomes a dangerous rip-off. The veneer of validity conjured up by the lab coats can mislead consumers into believing that the tests will tell them something useful about their future health.
The fact that these tests are offered direct to consumers, often via the internet, introduces another level of concern. How does a firm that offers tests over the web ensure that consumers are fully informed of the results’ implications? And more importantly that the sample is from the person who has sent it in?
Go to the NHS instead
For these reasons I think that genetic tests that claim to screen individuals for serious diseases like cancer and diabetes shouldn’t be offered direct to consumers. If you’re concerned about these, the NHS can offer genetic tests. These are subject to tough assessments that ensure they provide useful results, and are only offered by trained medical professionals with the provision of counselling.
Tests offered outside of this setting are in danger of causing unnecessary concern or even unwarranted reassurances that could have a serious impact on a patient’s health. It could even result in healthy people flooding the NHS for reassurance.
Would you use home genetic tests?
No, I'll stick to professional medical advice (58%, 90 Votes)
I don't know, they sound expensive (24%, 37 Votes)
Yes, the results could prompt me to look after my health (18%, 27 Votes)
Total Voters: 154