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Over-the-Counter Genetic Tests: Buyer Beware

The results can be horrifyingly wrong

En español | In this age of astonishing genetic innovations, consumers can surf the Internet for genetic tests that claim to show whether they run the risk of developing heart disease, Alzheimer's and many other illnesses, including cancers. Often the same test promises to deliver innocuous or oddball information such as whether the consumer carries genes for detecting sweaty smells, developing freckles or hating brussels sprouts.

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A group of cotton swabs. Over-the-counter genetic tests may not be accurate.

Over-the-counter genetic tests don't always deliver on their promises. — Photo by Getty Images

There's no question that certain genetic tests can identify a specific gene that causes a rare disorder or specific mutation that causes some hereditary diseases like breast and ovarian cancers. But an undercover investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year suggested that so-called direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies are misleading consumers in ways that could be "dangerous, irresponsible and deceptive."

As part of the investigation that documented examples of what the GAO described as the "deceptive marketing" of 15 direct-to-consumer genetic tests, five GAO researchers posing as consumers submitted DNA samples — taken from saliva or by swabbing the inside of their cheeks — to four different genetic testing companies. What came back were contradictory results that the report called "misleading and of little or no practical use."

Disease predictions from the genetic testing companies often conflicted with the investigators' actual medical histories. One undercover consumer who has a pacemaker to correct an irregular heartbeat was told he was at decreased risk for developing such a condition. That same consumer, a colon cancer survivor, received test results from one company that he was "at average risk of developing the disease."

Next: Don't seek out genetic test without doctor's support. >>

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