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

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