Is DNA testing worth the money?
The cost of DNA testing has fallen dramatically. Now that it’s available to many more people should we be testing ourselves and our children? Or is the process still in its infancy and too prone to error?
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Increased personal awareness and shock results can help prevention of diseases
Whilst information is constantly provided to the public about the health implications of lifestyle choices such as drinking, smoking, dietary choices and other factors which come with our environmental situation, this objective advice is something that we are all aware of but often adopt the much clichéd “it won’t happen to me” attitude. By providing subjective details based on genetic makeup, surely this is a sensible approach to raising patients’ individual awareness of how they could change their lifestyle to reduce the risk of getting the illnesses to which they are particularly susceptible. Dr Paul Jenkins, medical director of Genetic health points out that whilst the tests are not diagnostic; patients have a right to know whether their genes put them at increased risk of certain diseases. In the same way that knowing you have high blood pressure increases your risk of heart attack, this is an advancement of such medical awareness which will allow patients to take precautions which may reduce the risk of specific diseases. Often, such shock tactics work better than being repeatedly told by others of general risks. The personalised nature of these tests will make people realise the immediacy of maintaining their health
Shock results could equally be a very negative thing. Great potential for psychological upset comes from bad results relating to an individual’s susceptibility to illnesses later in life. Dr Paul Martin, from the University of Nottingham's Institute for Science and Society, is worried about testing for illnesses like Alzheimer's, for which there is currently no available treatment. The individual receiving such information is going to be subjected to a great amount of fear, anxiety and stress, which can clearly have a negative impact on their health.
It can take pressure off doctors’ resources
To go to a doctor to gain information that could be gained at home seems like a pointless venture. By testing at home for genetic susceptibility to medical conditions, this will better stretch doctors’ valuable time and resources to patients who are ill or who have already contracted such diseases. Furthermore, many people find a trip to the doctor a daunting experience, which they then try to avoid. Thus, medical conditions or potential to contract such conditions may go undetected. By offering home testing kits, this problem can be avoided as patients do not have to directly confront a doctor, learning about their health in the emotional comforts of their home.
However we are only talking about testing for susceptibility here. If someone finds they are susceptible they may become paranoid about contracting the condition and visit the doctor much more regularly as a result therefore wasting doctors' time.
Progression in medical science can only be a benefit
Home testing is not a new science. We are already able to test for pregnancy, diabetes and (although to a lesser extent) skin and colon cancer. If we expect home genetic testing not to be used because it is only in the primitive stages of development, progression will never happen. The cost of such technologies is a necessary condition of such progress. In a report for the Guardian, it was stated that evolution in DNA mapping has massively increased in recent years, as a result of technological advancement. Whilst the process is currently very costly, it is expected that this will fall dramatically as the process gains prominence. The Social benefit of progress in medical technology far outweighs the cost of each individual kit.
The new provision of ‘DIY’ tests may be an appealing concept but the reality is that the tests provided are simply not developed enough to be worth the money. The preliminary long-term studies necessary to gauge the predictive value of these tests have not been carried out prior to putting these tests on the market. This means that there is little evidence to suggest that these tests are effective or reliable. In addition, the tests only analyse a minute fraction of the 25,000 plus genes that make up human DNA, which severely restricts the amount of information that can be extracted from the sample required. It also has to be borne in mind that the average recipient of such results will be left to interpret what exactly the results mean without the benefit of any training in the study of genetics. The risk of misinterpreting such complex and detailed information is high and the likelihood is that the individual will be left mystified by the result.
The companies offering DIY DNA tests are unregulated and overstating their powers.
A report by 5live report found six British companies all selling different types of DIY DNA tests. This obviously does not include the many other companies that are now springing up all over the globe. Mark Jobling, a Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester describes them as ‘fly by night’ companies who are basically ‘piggy backing’ on the financial success of other profitable companies. For the average member of the public looking to buy one of these tests it is impossible to know which company they can put their trust in to provide an effective test. Even the companies that are well established are inevitably restricted by the amount of scientifically proven information available. This means that the public can only be provided with general information as opposed to any specific information relating to them as an individual. The prices of the tests studied by 5live ranged from £100 up to a whopping £1,000 and in light of the generality of the result this is plainly an unworthy investment.
Bad results can have a negative impact on an individual’s physical and psychological health.
Many DIY DNA tests available to buy are aimed at people wishing to trace their ancestryor determine their immediate parents if this is unknown or in dispute.For those tracing their ancestors, the danger is that if you have a firm belief in where you originated and you receive results that overturn that view it can lead to confusion, upset and a loss of identity. The same argument applies to those individuals who seek paternity tests, especially those who may have been adopted as the results can cause huge disruption to the individual concerned and their adoptive family.
These tests can have a negative impact on society as a whole.
The implications of DNA results showing each individual’s susceptibility to certain diseases could potentially increase prejudice within society. Steve Fuller, a renowned Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick suggests that due to the high number of differentiated populations it is possible that the results of DNA testing could lead to certain diseases being associated with specific racial groups. In turn he believes that this could lead to prejudice against such groups to the extent of excluding them entrance into other countries. He expands on the dangers of DNA testing to state that it could lead to an intensified view of different races; a process he refers to as ‘re-racialisation’. The example given is that the tests could identify the ‘y’ chromosome that shows a lineage dating back to the gypsy line. Fuller states that if the Nazis had had the power to do this then they could have utilised the information to target certain groups. It begs the question whether we really want to spend money on such tests and encourage the provision of inaccurate evidence that could then be abused.
What do you think?