Over-the-Counter DNA Testing: Wave of the Future or Waste of Money?

"This is a horrible idea," says Dr. Michael Grodin, professor of bioethics, human rights, family medicine and psychiatry at Boston University. "Genetic testing is a complex, difficult and emotionally laden medical process which requires extensive counseling, contextualization and interpretation."

Lee Vermeulen, director for the Center for Drug Policy at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, agrees, calling the test "reckless and inappropriate."

"Regardless of whether they are told they are at low or high risk, the impact on their future behaviors will be affected substantially an inappropriately," he says.

A high-risk result may alarm the consumer needlessly, doctors say, and a low-risk one may provide a false sense of security, lulling consumers to pay less attention to their health habits and skip preventive medical screenings.

Doctors also said genetic factors can only explain a portion of disease risk, and were concerned that customers getting a genetic "clean bill of health" would mistakenly think they were in the clear.

Is Knowing Our DNA TMI?

But do these direct-to-consumer reports necessarily lack the kind of context and counseling that doctors deem necessary?

With the purchase of any of their tests, D'Eon says Pathway Genomics will provide free genetic counseling (via phone) by a team of on-staff genetic counselors. In addition, a physician reviews all lab results, and will call customers if it appears there's a serious genetic issue.

Genetic counseling is strongly recommended for those customers who are trying to conceive, he adds, and says that the company aims to give customers information that they can then take "to the next level, perhaps to your doctor."

Walgreens spokesperson Jim Cohn echoed this recommendation, saying that Walgreens will still recommend that people talk to their doctors about their results.

"The whole concept is that we're helping people make healthier lifestyle decisions," D'Eon says. "We understand that genes are not all the information you need, but they're the only part that's been kind of invisible for many years. Now you know your family history, your diet and exercise, and your genes -- you have the whole picture."

And not all genetic experts were opposed to the idea of a personalized genome over the Internet.

This "panicked response" from doctors is "elitist," Angrist says, and "assumes that the ordinary person is stupid and not entitled to his or her genetic information without a third-party 'expert.'"

Similarly, David Ledbetter, director of the Division of Medical Genetics at Emory University School of Medicine, says direct-to-consumer companies like Pathway Genomics are "providing a substantial service [by] bringing genetic information into broader medical and public discussion."

Though there are definitely some concerns accompanying this practice, there are also "more significant positives" he says.

And the increased presence of personalized genetics is not likely to decline anytime soon, says Vermeulen.

"We are clearly entering a world where genetic information is going to play a role. I firmly believe that there will be good things that will come from that," he says, but cautions that "jumping in too early" is likely to cause problems.

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