Saskatoon geneticist says buyer beware for mail-order tests

Having the knowledge of whether you're likely to get cancer or diabetes sounds too good to pass up. But a Saskatoon geneticist says, if you want a mail-order genetics test, it's buyer beware.

Dr. Edmond Lemire says tests a good party trick, not a health tool

Mail-order genetic tests are done using a saliva swab. (CBC)
Knowing whether you're likely to get cancer or diabetes sounds too good to pass up. But a Saskatoon geneticist says, if you want a mail-order genetics test, it's buyer beware.

"The testing is a good party trick but I don't think you should be making medical and health care decisions based on the testing that is being offered by many of these companies," said Dr. Edmond Lemire, the head of medical genetics at the University of Saskatchewan. 

Dr. Edmond Lemire, head of medical genetics at the University of Saskatchewan, says you get what you pay for with mail-order genetic tests. (Dr. Edmond Lemire)

There are a handful of private companies now offering testing in Canada. One of the most controversial is 23andme. The company tests for about 100 health markers based on a sample of your saliva. Customers apply for the testing kit online, submit a sample and get a response in two to six weeks via email.

"What we do is we look at your health and your ancestry. That could be things like drug response - are you likely to respond to medication or not? Disease risks - are you susceptible to certain diseases? And ancestry information - where are you from in the world?" CEO Anne Wojcicki recently said on CBC's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not concerned about the ancestry testing. But it has blocked 23andme from sending health information to customers of its genetic testing kits in the U.S. 

Meanwhile, in Canada, the company has been deemed non-therapeautic, according to Wojcicki, and therefore is free to sell the product.

Tests cause pressure on health system, says Lemire

Dr. Lemire says his office has had two cases where people took the mail-order test from 23andme. One test showed an increased risk of colon cancer. In one case the person's risk was 8 per cent, compared to 5 per cent in the normal population, which he says is extremely low.  So if you hear you're at increased risk, without getting an interpretation of the results, you could be needlessly worried.

"To me it should be responsibility of the company to provide the interpretation and they aren't."

His office declined to take on the case. Dr. Lemire says referrals like this create unnecessary pressure on the medical system and take away time from other patients who actually need his service.

He says it's possible things can take a more life-threatening turn. If you have a family history of cancer, and you decide to get one of these tests, instead of seeing him, it could potentially show you have a low risk. He says if you skip that colonoscopy or that breast exam because you think you have a low risk, the effect could be deadly.

Dr. Lemire says there is some scientific basis for the testing private genetics companies do, but he says the clinical validity of some of the tests is questionable.

"They're preying on people...but when it boils down to it, it probably doesn't mean very much at all in terms of your risks."