What do I need to know about that $99 Home DNA kit?

Wait! Don't run right out and buy the $99 DNA testing kit described in your Sunday newspaper! Check it out and see what's really involved.

Here's what the blurb in your newspaper says:

Genetics has moved from the lab to the supermarket. Lund Food Holdings, a grocery store company, has started selling home DNA kits developed by Sciona Inc. within its pharmacies and at sciona.com. Purchasers can test their genetic predisposition for disease in five areas: bone health, heart health, inflammation, insulin resistance and how well the body rids itself of toxins. "This is a way of finding out if you're susceptible to illness before symptoms appear," says Yael Joffe, a Sciona dietitian. Consumers use a cheek swab to take a DNA sample, which is mailed to a lab. Within three weeks they will receive a detailed report that reviews the findings and offers nutritional steps to improve their health.

I went to the website for Sciona, Inc. and found a little bit different picture.

First, the cheapest test there is $126 (which apparently includes shipping).

Second, there's not one test, but 5 individual tests and one comprehensive (all 5) test ($252).

Third, the disclaimer at the bottom of the page says:

The Cellf Genetic Assessment is not a genetic test for disease or pre-disposition to disease, nor does it determine a medical condition. The information that will be provided is not a diagnosis of a medical condition. Individuals with specific concerns about their health status or genetic testing should consult their doctor or genetics professional.

Fourth, by clicking on Product Specifications, you can see what genes the tests claim to look at. You may find a bit of overlap. I wondered what "genetic variation screened for variations found in your gene" meant.

Fifth, I found the following of particular interest:

Sciona's Genostics Rules Engineâ„¢ is proprietary, patent-pending software based on a data mine of over 1,000 scientific studies. The software uses complex mathematical algorithms to produce personalized health intervention recommendations based on genetic profile, diet and lifestyle. We have 10,000 genes in our library, and actively track approximately 200 genes that may have a strong nutritional intervention link. We are concerned only with genes that may indicate a potential risk for a health condition that may be manageable through changes in diet, lifestyle and/or nutritional supplementation.

Not long ago, in a similar Sunday newspaper, I read an article by someone who submitted a DNA sample for a similar test (may have even been this one, but I don't have the article handy). His final response was something like this: for the same amount of money, I can read nearly any article on health and diet and learn the same things. I don't really think I needed to pay this amount to learn that I need to eat more fiber and excercise more often.

Personally, I'm not willing to pay the money to have a computer plug my name into 30 pages of "you should" information--regardless of my genetic background.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Investigation finds that home DNA testing kits promise more than they can deliver

Several newspapers lately have reported on the General Accountability Office's testing of genetic tests sold online. According to the U.S. News and WorldReport, "these 'direct-to-consumer' genetic tests, which cost from less than $100 to over $1,000, have proliferated on the Internet in recent years, many promising to give consumers genetically based nutritional advice or advance warning of life-threatening illnesses."

Unfortunately, the GAO report concludes that the tests make predictions that are medically unproven and "so ambiguous that they do not provide meaningful information."

According to news reports, "the GAO investigators took two DNA samples via cheek swab, one from a 48-year-old GAO employee and one from the 9-month-old daughter of Gregory Kutz, the GAO's managing director of forensic audits and special investigation, and submitted the two samples under 14 phony names. The online firms reported back that the 14 fictitious customers were at risk for a wide-ranging list of serious diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure--despite the fact that only two people were tested."

The Senate Select Committee on Aging held a hearing on the GAO's findings last week. Genetic science holds great promise," said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, chairman of the committee, who requested the GAO investigation. "Clearly, consumers are being misled and exploited by this modern-day snake oil, and I am shocked to learn how little the federal government is doing to help consumers make informed decisions about the legitimacy of these tests."

The Federal Trade Commission is also urging consumers to be cautious about over-the-counter genetic tests, noting that companies may post your results online, which could raise privacy concerns. A new brochure offers tips and advice on these new at-home tests.

Many of your questions can be answered here, right on the Geneforum website. Check out the new Consumer's Guide to Genetic Testing.

Marie Godfrey, PhD