Home DNA kits -- to test or not to test?

These days, home DNA tests are being used for far more than finding clues about Grandpa Joe or Great-Great Grandpa Isadore. There are groups that offer to find your perfect dating match based on DNA, and kits you can use to test for potential future health issues, like cancer, heart disease or obesity.

Ancestry.com, the genealogy site, is going to offer more advanced DNA testing for its members, helping people find ancestors all the way back to the 18th century. All you have to do is take a home DNA test.

Art Caplan is the incoming medical ethics head at NYU. He says, "The technology is pretty remarkable. You can certainly look for different distinctive markers on your genes and find them and say look all these other people have the same marker. I must be related to them. But, most of us, when we think about ancestry, we're talking about social and cultural groupings that are imposed upon those genes. It's not the genetic technology that's weak. It's that our ideas about ethnicity, race, are so tied up in our history, politics, that it's a little awkward to try and squeeze them on a genetic analysis."

And, he says, for all the advances in genetic testing, "It's not anything close to 100 percent accurate even for the small amount of genetic material you're looking at. So, you could think, ah, I finally know that I'm from this tribe or this group, maybe not."

Home DNA tests are being used for far more than finding clues about Grandpa Joe or Great-Great Grandpa Isadore. There are groups that offer to find your perfect dating match based on DNA. And kits you can use to test for potential future health issues, like cancer, heart disease or obesity.

Siobhan Dolan researches reproductive genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She says when it comes to health issues, at home testing is really problematic. "The data is not really clear cut what's right and what's wrong. So, you could send your data to three different companies and get three different results, and who's right? And so, it's really a difficult landscape for consumers to navigate and we don't advise it at this time."

If you're worried about heart disease, Dolan says, exercise. If you're worried about lung cancer, stop smoking. And if you do want a health-based DNA screening, she says go to a doctor’s office.

Dr. Caplan says there's another risk with all of these at-home-testing services: what do they do with your DNA. "Well, you know, the companies say we're going to keep everything private and I believe that. However, if the company gets bought by another company, then the DNA samples and the information about you go to the next company, and there's no restriction on the transfer of that information. We don't have laws that say you can't resell genetic material or information based on genetic findings."

Might want to think hard before you mail off that DNA swab.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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