At-home genetic testing kits: are they worth the racket?

Tests from 23andMe are insanely popular, but the information they provide seems to be anything but conclusive

In recent years, we’ve seen a surge in popularity of at-home genetic testing kits like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. The allure of these products is obvious; you get to know more about the most important person you know: YOU.

23andMe testing kits have become extensively popular thanks in part to a pervasive marketing campaign, especially around the winter holidays. What better gift is there to give your family than the gift of identity? So far, 23andMe have managed to build a genetic catalogue of nearly 5 million people based on this drawing factor, which seems huge.

But how accurate are these genetic readings? Can they be interpreted scientifically? Well, the easy answer is no. But, it’s complicated.

All 23andMe tests require a DNA sample gathered from a self-administered saliva swab, which is mailed off and tested in a lab. Customers of 23andMe receive a genetic reading in the mail, which breaks down their racial composition and, for an additional fee, predicts common health and wellness vulnerabilities based on their profile.

What these tests fail to convey is that the information provided to customers is based solely on 23andMe’s existing database of 5 million people, not on worldwide statistics. Suddenly, in terms of global context, that database number seems rather small.

Experts advise customers of 23andMe, beware: health predispositions cannot be determined based on genetic make up alone.

Heather Douglas, a genetic counsellor thinks these tests should be more upfront about the variables that determine an individual’s overall health. “Someone reading their own results may see something like ‘No genetic mutations were found in colon cancer susceptibility genes’ and think their risk of colon cancer is low,” she says, “Whereas a genetic counsellor will have the wisdom and experience to know that the same person’s colon cancer risk could still be up to 80 per cent depending on personal medical history, family history, and what genes were tested.”

The field of genetic counselling is much more complicated than a simple mail-in swab test. Lifestyle, environmental factors and medical history must all be considered in determining disease and illness susceptibility.

On the bright side, the popularity of at-home testing kits has certainly been beneficial to the growing genetic counselling industry. Many people opt to refer to genetic counsellors like Douglas to interpret the results of their at-home kits, and in turn receive a more holistic approach to determining their health concerns.

Should you wish to do an at-home genetic make-up test of your own, consider consulting a professional like Douglas at some point during the process. And be warned that the results are best used as a guideline – and should be taken with a grain of salt. Alternatively, skip the middleman entirely and head straight to your local geneticist instead.

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