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Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Tests Neither Accurate in Their Predictions nor Beneficial to Individuals, Study Suggests:

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests give inaccurate predictions of disease risks and many European geneticists believe that some of them should be banned, the annual conference of the European Society of Human Genetics heard May 31….

Here’s the abstract for the talk which argued that DTC companies don’t give the best disease risk estimates:

Objective: Direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies predict risks of common complex diseases on the basis of genetic markers. Given the low number of markers involved and their small effect sizes, it is unclear whether high-risk groups can be identified. We investigated the risk distributions generated by two DTC companies for 8 diseases.

Methods: We simulated genotype data for 100,000 individuals based on published genotype frequencies. Predicted risks were obtained using the formulas and risk data provided by the companies.

Results: The table presents observed and trimmed ranges of predicted risks. The two companies used different formulas to calculate risks. One company predicted risks higher than 100% for 5 out of 8 diseases, which for AMD concerned 1 in 200 individuals. Observed ranges were smaller for the second company, except for Type 1 Diabetes. Predicted risks higher than 50% were frequently observed for company 1, but were exceptions for company 2. When predicted risks of company 1 were calculated using the formulas of company 2, observed ranges were substantially smaller.

Since I don’t put much stock in the small effect disease risk predictions currently, I am not surprised. But I’d be curious to look at the guts of their results. This was presented at conference, so some caution has to enter into the picture. The main issue I’d always want to emphasize with critiques of the lack of efficacy of DTC is that they need to be evaluated against the baseline of the limits to the efficacy of medical professionals and medicine in general. Genomics and DNA doesn’t make something magical, whether for good or ill.

The second presentation covered in the ScienceDaily release is kind of more disturbing to me. Here’s the abstract:

An increasing number of private companies are now offering direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing services. The tests offered range from tests for single gene, highly penetrant disorders to susceptibility tests for genetic variants associated with common complex diseases or with particular non-health-related traits. The aim of this study was to collect information regarding the awareness, experiences and attitudes of European clinical geneticists about genetic tests and test interpretations sold directly to consumers. European clinical institutes where genetic counselling is offered to patients were contacted. One-hundred and thirty-one of the three-hundred eligible respondents (44%) answered a questionnaire. Eighty-six percent (110/128) of the clinical geneticists said they were aware that companies are advertising and selling genetic tests directly-to-consumers. Of the 44% (54/121) of the respondents who had been contacted by patients who underwent DTC testing, almost all respondents (98%, 47/48) did discuss test results with the patients. The following respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that DTC genetic tests should be legally banned for following tests: prenatal gender tests (69%, 77/112); genome scans (63%, 70/112), 54%, athletic performance (54%, 61/113), preconceptional carrier tests (53%, 59/112) and ancestry testing (27%, 30/113). The results indicate that most European clinical geneticists have only limited experience with patients who have accessed direct-to-consumer genetic testing, however, these physicians are entering into patient-physician interactions with patients when requested to do so.

I’m going to calm down, because these results frankly kind of piss me off. 30 out of 113 think ancestry testing should be legally banned? The stuff quoted in ScienceDaily is even more disturbing:

Genome-wide scans by companies are totally unacceptable, as they can derive sensitive information about medically relevant conditions and will also provide lots of information which is difficult to interpret, even for medical professionals,” said another respondent. Presenting the results of such tests directly to individuals is unacceptable, the majority of those surveyed said.

90% of respondents felt that a pre-symptomatic test — predicting if an asymptomatic person had a very high probability of developing a condition — should not be allowed without face-to-face medical supervision; 93% felt the same for a predictive test for a condition that has a penetrance (the proportion of individuals with the mutation who exhibit clinical symptoms) of 50 — 60%; 79% for a carrier test for homozygous monogenic disorders, such as sickle-cell anaemia; and 72% for a predictive test for a condition that increased or decreased a person’s risk of developing it by 4% when compared to the general population.

At the moment, DTC genetic tests reach the market without having undergone any form of regulation. “Better regulation is needed at the level of market introduction of these tests,” says Professor Borry. As in the case of drugs, a procedure should be developed for genetic tests.

I think one of the key issues is that these genetic professionals view DTC genomics in the same category as a pharmaceutical. I view DTC genomics as part of the same family of consumer and social goods as information technology. When viewed in the context of our current medical-industrial infrastructure it seems that on the margin the future opportunities to reduce morbidity through better lifestyle choices and more information via DTC genomics is a no brainer. If there was social science evidence that people who receive false positive results are regularly committing suicide then obviously my preference for loose regulation would need re-examination. That would be like someone jumping off the tenth floor of an office building after a “blue screen of death.”

But from what I’ve seen at places likes Genomes Unzipped and FuturePundit these dystopian visions of mass hysteria don’t end up to panning out. Until that point it seems that the best avenue toward improvement of this technology is to allow the trial and error process of innovation to continue. It is incumbent on those of us “in the know” to evangelize about the limitations and opportunities of this technology (e.g., don’t buy AIBioTech Sports X Factor!). But the reality is that much of medicine is already technology, and not subject to careful professional oversight. Instrumentation necessary for life critical functions are designed and built by engineers and technicians.

The bigger social issue here seems to be the attempt by genetic professionals to regulate the flow of information. Though I’m skeptical of most licensing regimes I’m not totally opposed to them on principle. But they need to be imposed on extreme cases only. You don’t want just any random person offering cut rate surgery or mass prescribing antibiotics to one and all. The individual and social costs of these actions can be very negative and irreversible (i.e., someone dies, or a resistant bacterial strain emerges). But when it comes to information services requiring a “professional” is going to choke the supply and spike up the cost. Additionally, there’s going to be a constant latency in terms of the ability of professionals to actually interpret the swell of data which is going to be coming in their direction. The reality is that the professionals are going to have to rely on advanced analytic software. Obviously my own preference is that such analytic software should be widely available and cheap. If you want to ban sex selective abortions address the problem at the level of abortion, a procedure which most people agree should be under some professional and regulatory supervision already. Don’t deny people the information to prevent a few harms.

If anyone wants to release their genotype into the public domain, email me at contactgnxp -at- Know that some clinical geneticists probably think you’re a public health hazard!

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Last week I posted Don’t buy AIBioTech Sports X Factor kit! I laid out my rationale explicitly:

I’ve been pretty vocal about the impending specter of genetic paternalism in relation to personal genomics, which I believe to be futile in the long term, and likely to squelch innovation in the United States in the short term. Like any new product category there’s a lot of hype and confusion in the area of personal genomics, but I think it’s important that we allow some mistakes and misfires to occur. Innovation and creativity isn’t failure-free.

With that said, I also think it is incumbent upon the personal genomics community, if there is such a thing, to “police” the flow of information. I have seen references in the media to a new personal genomics kit, Sports X Factor, selling for $180, from AIBioTech. My initial intent was to ignore this, as there is real science and tech to be covered. This is just another case of a biotech firm trying to leverage public confusion and gullibility into revenue. But if I think such a thing, I should make my opinion known, shouldn’t I?….

My intent was to come up high on Google searches for the firm and product which they’re selling. I don’t want to drive the firm out of business or anything like that, and I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if I think what they are selling with Sports X Factor kit is technically fraudulent (though I don’t think it is). But I wouldn’t recommend this to my friends. $180 is not a trivial sum in my world. Unlike some I don’t think genetic information is horrible or incredibly precious information which only “professionals” should have access to. I just don’t think that the price is right. Too many of the media stories have a tendency to focus on the terror of people finding out about their genetic predispositions, but I think the truth of Sports X Factor kit is more banal: it is just not a product with results worth the money you are shelling out. Standard economics, not bioethics.

Today I got this strange comment from someone who works for AIBioTech, the firm which produces Sports X Factor, defending the product:

You are very welcome to your opinion, and if you don’t want to buy it then DON”T. From what I can see, you are no more qualified (“degrees”? BS? MS, PHD?) to offer an opinion on whether the test is valid than anyone else. Just because you have a blog, it does not make you an expert on sports medicine. But when someone has the opportunity to find out if they or their child is at risk of sudden heart attack on the playing field, who are you to say that they should not do it? The market will decide if the test is valid, not you.

The individual goes under the handle “PHDGrl,” and unless this person is impersonating someone else’s identity, she does have a Ph.D (I looked at her Facebook profile). But more importantly she works for AIBioTech, as confirmed also by an IP trace. I don’t personally have an issue about people in a firm wanting to defend their product. Frankly one of my problems with the product they’re selling is that there’s a lack of transparency to my mind about the methods they’re using to calculate their scores, so they could have addressed that issue more thoroughly than in the material they have on the web.

As it is, the criticism was really weird in my opinion. It is moderately relevant that I do not have a doctorate, all things equal, so that’s fine. But I do think I am more able to offer an opinion on whether the test is valid “than anyone else.” Not only am I a relatively large consumer of personal genomics services (I’ve had almost everyone in my family typed, on my dime), I have done a lot of detailed analysis of the raw data of friends & family (as well as the over 100 individuals in the African Ancestry Project). As for the last two sentences, I thought it was pretty clear that I am biased toward letting the market decide. Opinions offered on this weblog are part of the process of the market deciding. As would be a full-throated defense of the product from AIBioTech representatives. I also think parents have the right (as do children) to know about clear and present health risks which genotyping can ascertain. I just don’t think that at $180 AIBioTech’s product is a good value proposition for the average consumer. Unlike some I don’t think Sports X Factor information is likely to cause grievous harm to the psyches or physiques of parents and children who get their results back. I just think that the damage done to the wallet definitely isn’t worth the informational return for the vast majority of their customers.

On the one hand I appreciate AIBioTech “pushing the envelope.” But pushing the envelope should be accompanied by an awesome product. I don’t think Sports X Factor is an awesome product.

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"