Genetic testing: Direct to Consumer Marketing

It is not difficult to appreciate the growing public awareness and interest in the role of genetics in personal health. Media reports and popular news magazines are quick to report the ‘discovery’ of new gene associations in human disease and more recently, the role of individual genetic variations as related to diet and nutrition.

Nutrigenetics or nutrigenomics is defined as “the science that examines individual responses to food compounds using genetic technologies”. Direct to consumer nutrigenetic tests are currently available and are described as providing an analysis of certain genes in order to provide personalized nutritional and lifestyle recommendations that will promote optimal gene expression and reduce an individual’s disease risk. The costs of these tests range from less than $100 to more than $1000 and require a DNA sample (usually a cheek swab) which is mailed to a lab for processing.

An interesting study was conducted by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) from August 2005 to June 2006 in which nutrigenetic tests were purchased from 4 different web sites. These tests ranged in cost from $89 to $395, claimed that they would analyze 4-19 different genes to create a personalized nutritional plan but that they did not test specifically for disease or pre-disposition to disease.

The GAO study design submitted 14 DNA samples from an unrelated male and female to represent 14 fictitious and individual customers, each having different lifestyle profiles. The 4 testing labs reported 14 different evaluation plans for these ‘customers’ and 1 site recommended the use of nutritional supplements costing about $1200 per year. These supplements were comparable in ingredients to vitamins which could be purchased for about $35 per year. One site suggested using products that could repair damaged DNA but genetic consultants stated that there is no ‘pill’ capable of that purpose.

If the tests had been based on true genetic analysis there would not have been 14 different evaluations; the 14 DNA samples had come from only 2 individuals. A summary of the investigative study by the GAO include: 1) results contained health-related predictions that are unproven and of no meaning, 2) results encouraged the purchase of expensive supplements, 3) results were not based on individual genetic profiles, and 4) 3 of the 4 web sites used the same test developed by the same company; this company had been pressured to stop direct to consumer sales operations in the United Kingdom in 2002. In 2003 this same company moved its operations to the United States.

As further advances occur in this field, valid nutrigenetic information and tests may become available. Until that time it may be best to save the money and your DNA, consult with medical professionals, and follow healthy lifestyle choices.