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Power of spit

Posted 03/12/2014 by sevans

Outrage seems to be the general reaction surrounding the UK launch this week of a new genetic testing kit by US biotech 23andMe. For a mere £125, the firm's DNA 'spit' test kit promises to provide information on any of 100 genetic conditions – including personal predisposition to Alzheimer's, cancer, CF and Parkinson's – along with a welter of data on whether you like sprouts, how closely you may be related to the Neanderthals, if you are a fast runner – and even your risk of going bald.

It seems like amazing value. So what's the problem? At the heart of the controversy, it seems, is the fact that the test results cannot be guaranteed as truly reliable.  In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reportedly banned the company from revealing any results other than the raw data and details relating to a person's ancestry, while here in the UK, the Department of Health (DoH) has warned people to be cautious over interpreting the results. The fact that 23andMe is able to provide us with these medical risk data here at all is down to the fact the kit is marketed for recreational purposes and not as a diagnostic.

But what test results are 100% reliable? For most people who follow the DoH guidelines and interpret the results with care, I would argue the DNA spit test is good value for money.£125 is a remarkably small price to pay for any genetic insights that might raise awareness of a possible heightened risk of disease or condition that encourages us to take steps to do something about it – or to seek out further medical advice where needed.

I suspect that many other people won't share this view, however. And for some of a nervous disposition, it's true that the results could cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. As with all purchases, there's a simple solution: if you think you won't like what you find out, don't buy the kit. And, rather like getting a new pet, it definitely isn't a gift you should give anyone at Christmas.

Cath O'Driscoll – Deputy editor

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