Genetic testing--who benefits?

This morning I viewed yet another advertisement for a "new" genetic testing company. I wondered once again, "who benefits from this free advertising?'

The national morning news program touted this as an example of the way to investigate your genetic future. By simply spitting into a plastic cup and sending the sample to Company A, you can learn who and what you are now and what you will be in the future.

For once, the presentation was more factual than hype. Many statements were qualified by providing some idea of their limitations. For example, when asked how accurate these tests were, the company representatives stated the tests were very, very accurate. This is true. As DNA chips for analysis become more refined, false negatives and positives for specific SNPs (the very small portion of DNA being tested in a single "spot" of the test) are more closely known--but did the company representative give a number for accuracy? No; nor was any definition of accuracy given. Nor was there any discussion of whether SNP #18754638836 accurately predicts condition XORIRUEJGKLERUI.

The tv presentation focused on the clear cut results: eye color, response to particular food stuffs as bitter-tasting, and ear wax. Were you underwhelmed? Don't you already know your eye color? did you happen to see the recent news that the genetics of eye color is very complex--not the simple single gene we all learned about in school? The bitterness test is one still commonly demonstrated in biology classes in response to a chemical known as PTC (phenylthiocarbamide--found in brussel sprouts and some red meats). And, what does it mean if you have dry ear wax versus wet ear wax?

When it came to predicting the possibility of certain cancers--prostate in the case of the person whose DNA was tested for the program--the results showed that the person has one of five genetic risk factors. Remember that the day after the five risk factors were announced, another additional set of factors was described and discussions again surfaced on whether and how prostate cancer should be treated. So, did the person learn a lot?

The person tested also learned that he had a greater percentage of markers for developing diabetes. If the person addresses factors in his lifestyle that he should have been addressing already--factors already known to affect possible development of diabetes type II--he will be better off healthwise. Duh!!

And then, the company representatives told us that information is still beginning to be collected and more will be known as more people are tested. Again....duh! Once again, a commercial operation is charging us to supply material to them for building genetic databases they can mine for more information. Do you think that the amount of information they are able to mine will be related to the number of people who send in samples? Do you think that the amount of money the company will be able to make is based on the same factor?

Once again, we have a "broker" for genetic testing: a company that collects your samples (and information), has the testing done by another company (or using another company's product), gives you results you will certainly need help to interpret, and talks about how great their services are.

Are you perhaps wondering whether the company is trader on some stock marker? Perhaps investing in one or more of these "new" wonderful companies is more logical than buying one of their tests.

Marie Godfrey, PhD



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