With so much uncertainty and concern about how the sum of the genes in our DNA will affect our health, there's plenty of room for companies claiming to have the answers to take advantage of our fears.
Will I have a heart attack? Am I at risk for prostate cancer? Clues may lie in our genetic code. At the moment, though, general genetic tests can't say for sure whether you will develop many common diseases.
Unfortunately, this scientific muddle hasn't stopped some companies selling genetic testing services directly to consumers from making overblown and misleading claims about them.
The Food and Drug Administration has been looking into the developing industry. And today congressmen grilled several company execs in a Capitol Hill hearing that featured some explosive revelations about claims made to undercover investigators.
The bombshell at the hearing was the unveiling of results of an undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office that found some pretty startling claims being made by the companies.
"I believe, as do our experts, that these results clearly show that these tests are not ready for prime time," GAO's investigator Gregory Kutz testified today, according to the Associated Press.
In these conversations with real company reps, fictitious consumers get downright ridiculous advice. And they're given a range of misleading test results. Check out the video for the highlights.
One fake customer who learns she's at high-risk for breast cancer is told by a company representative that "she'll pretty much get" the disease. Experts hired by the GAO to review the tapes called this comment "horrifying" because it implies the test is diagnostic. Two other customers are told that custom supplements can "repair damaged DNA" or even cure a disease, though experts say there is no scientific basis for such claims.
And get this: Two companies claim their DNA tests can predict which sports a child will excel at. Ha! You mean I may be missing out on the knowledge that my kid has-what-it-takes to be the next Michael Phelps? (I think I'll stick with the tried and true method of observing which activities my boys are interested in -- and letting them follow their bliss.)
But I have to admit, a genetic test that predict my child's risk of excessive earwax? Now, that I gotta know! But as science journalist Ed Yong concluded after his own personal experiment getting tested by the company 23andMe, "this doesn’t feel like a technology where there is a real benefit in being an early adopter."
And even when consumers are well-informed and use the best genetic tests, the results can lead to a lot of uncertainty. Families sometimes struggle to make medical decisions in the face of such ambiguity.
The GAO turned over its findings to the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission for "appropriate action."