MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A California company announced today that it's offering women a much cheaper way to find out if they're at risk for breast and ovarian cancer. The company and some cancer experts say the test will help many more women gauge their risk. But other experts and women's health advocates worry it may unnecessarily frighten and confuse women. NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to sort through this, and, Rob, let's talk about the test. It's being offered by a company called Color Genomics. It costs $249. How does it work?
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Well, the company's designed this test to make it as easy as possible for women to get tested. Basically, all she has to do is have her doctor order the test or go to the company's website and they'll hook her up with a doctor who will order it for her. Then she'll get a kit in the mail with a little plastic tube. She spits into it and mails it back. And then the company will analyze the DNA in cells that are floating around in her saliva. And within maybe four to eight weeks, the results will be sent to her doctor, all for, as you said, $249.
BLOCK: And, as we mentioned, that is a lot cheaper than these genetic tests would currently cost.
STEIN: Oh, yeah, It's way, way cheaper. And the company says they've been able to do this several different ways. One is by using the latest technology they've been able to automate the analysis in ways that were never been done before. They've also hired a bunch of top software engineers from companies like Google and Twitter. They've come up with a computer program that also helps. And also they've made it so cheap that the insurance companies don't have to get involved. And that saves money as well.
BLOCK: And what exactly are they testing for?
STEIN: Yeah, so they're testing for mutations in two genes that a lot of people have probably heard about. They're the so-called breast cancer genes - BRCA1 and BRCA2 - but they're also testing for mutations in 17 other genes that have been associated with an increased risk for ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
BLOCK: And as we indicated, there has been a split reaction to this news of this new test.
STEIN: Yeah, it's been really mixed. On the one hand, for example, I spoke to Mary-Claire King. She's a very well-known, highly respected geneticist at the University of Washington. She actually discovered one of the breast cancer genes - BRCA1. She's an unpaid adviser to the company, and she's thrilled. She thinks that this will make it a lot easier for a lot more women to get tested for these mutations, which she thinks is really important. There are - right now, the only women who are routinely urged to get tested are women who come from families with a history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. And they're the only women who could really get it paid for by their insurance companies. And she says there are a lot more women walking around out there with these mutations who have no idea that they're at increased risks and really could benefit from knowing that information.
BLOCK: On the other hand, what about the experts and health care advocates who say this would be confusing, frightening women?
STEIN: Yeah, I spoke to several of them today, and they're really worried about this. They think it could end up doing a lot more harm than good, and here's why - the results could end up being really ambiguous or vague and confusing to women. They won't know what to do with all this information. And, you know, it's also important to remember that just because you have one of these mutations doesn't mean you're necessarily going to get breast cancer or ovarian cancer. But women could end up doing something really drastic like having a double mastectomy or having their ovaries removed.
BLOCK: And what does the company say about that?
STEIN: They say they're trying to be really careful; that women have a right to this information if they want it. And they're making sure that a doctor is involved and they're also offering women free genetic testing to make sure they understand the results.
BLOCK: And briefly, Rob, any concern about the accuracy of this saliva test?
STEIN: Well, that is another question. The company says that they've tested it thoroughly, and it's highly accurate. And they've published that information on their website and they plan to submit that to a scientific journal to get it published as well.
BLOCK: OK. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.
STEIN: Oh, sure, nice to be here.
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