GAO report says genetic testing kits are misleading

A scientist preparing a genetic test.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The promise of personalized genetic testing is actually pretty interesting. Take a swab of the inside of your cheek, you mail it in, and for couple of hundred dollars, you learn your risk of cancer or heart disease. If only it worked out that way. A report by the Government Accountability Office says those do-it-yourself tests aren't much good.

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY in Philadelphia, Gregory Warner reports.


Gregory Warner: Government investigators sent the same saliva samples to four well-known genetic testing companies. The result? One donor was told that his risk of prostate cancer was below-average, average and above-average. The investigators also posed as customers and called the companies. No undercover sting operation would be complete without a muffled wiretap...

Fictitious Consumer: So if I'm high risk, does that mean I'll
definitely get breast cancer?

Company representative: You, you'd be in the high risk of, you know, pretty much getting it.

The company rep tells the woman she is likely to get breast cancer.

Harry Ostrer: There is no clinical validity for these tests.

Harry Ostrer is director of the human genetics program at NYU. He believes geneticists will have this power of prediction soon, but the science isn't there yet.

Ostrer: They're trying to do it prematurely and they are they're saying, "We're empowering consumers and you can trust us."

All the personalized genetic testing companies say their results are for "educational and recreational use only." The GAO didn't name the companies they investigated. But they said some of the companies told customers they could sell them a personalized pill to repair their damaged DNA.

Today, representatives from three companies - 23andme, Navigenics and Pathway Genomics Corporation testified before Congress. Analysts say the government could slap warning labels on the tests and even ban some tests from being sold online.

Jim Prutow: The economics of this particular industry just changed dramatically.

Jim Prutow is a consultant to genetic testing companies. He says these companies take just a few months to get up and running. New federal regulations could delay that to years. He said many of the small companies selling these tests don't have the deep pockets to last that long.

In Philadelphia, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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