The Real Science of DNA Testing
The Sunday ZEITGUIDE
May 12th, 2019
Mom Genes, Dad Genes: Does the Science of DNA Testing Match the Marketing?
Are you one of the more than 26 million people who have used a genetic testing service? Curiosity about ancestry, health, or even what wine will tickle one’s taste buds is fueling the skyrocketing $5 billion DNA testing industry. But are these companies delivering on what their marketing promises?
The Big Business of Tiny Molecules
—Advances in mapping and decoding the human genome are spurring excitement over the possibility to uncover detailed, personal insights into how our bodies and minds operate. DNA testing companies are capitalizing on the moment, offering tests that promise to reveal everything from our risk of developing inherited diseases or cancers, to what kinds of foods are best for our diet, to the types of exercise best suited to our bodies.
—This information is intended to help people improve their long-term health, but it seems the marketing for these services has gotten ahead of the science. “The data has no basis. It’s pseudoscience—complete, utter nothing,” says Eric Topol, a heart doctor and geneticist at the Scripps Research Institute. Consider recent research showing that the FDA-approved screening kit from 23andMe failed to detect a gene mutation linked to higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer in 90 percent of cases. These and other false negatives could lead patients to skip recommended screening tests like colonoscopies; false positives could prompt them to undergo unnecessary medical procedures.
—Even less scientifically sound are services that use genetic profiles to match consumers with products and services. A few examples …
Nutrisystem’s DNA Body Blueprint makes nutrition and fitness suggestions.
Pathway promises to help customers unlock the right skincare regimen.
SpareRoom helps find you a compatible roommate.
The Must-Have Conversation
Beyond the question of whether these services actually work are larger implications for consumer privacy. While laws are in place to protect discrimination by employers or insurance companies on the basis of one’s DNA, there’s little regulation of how the companies behind these popular testing services are allowed to use this information. Should law enforcement be allowed to access genetic databases? (It is already being used to solve cold cases.) What about hackers? Or if these companies are sold, or go out of business, what happens to the data?
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