Technology & Science·Audio

Home genetic testing

Science journalist Alison Motluk checks out the promise and controversy of home genetic testing.

The first draft of the human genome was published in Nature and Science in February 2001 — 10 years ago.

The project marked the beginning of a new age of genetic research and promised new remedies and cures for genetic diseases.

It also spawned direct-to-consumer, home genetic tests that allow you to get your DNA analysed quickly, conveniently, and easily — if not cheaply.  A complete scan from DeCode Genetics costs $2,000, for example.

Freelance science journalist Alison Motluk took spit and cheek swab samples and submitted her own DNA for home genetic testing by two companies: 23andMe, and DeCode Genetics. She also talked to three experts about the controversial tests.

Chris Trevors, a genetic counsellor at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and secretary of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors, thinks people shouldn't do these tests without thinking very carefully about them. There are a lot of implications and they can go beyond just your own personal health, such as whether to share bad news with siblings who share your genes.

Joanna Mountain, a geneticist and senior director of Research at 23andMe, says we may know a bit about our family's health history, but genetics can fill in the gaps and provide valuable information — especially for adopted persons. She feels home testing kits can make that information accessible.

Timothy Caulfield, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says the average person doesn't know how to interpret the test results, especially when they involve degrees of risk for developing a particular disease.

Caulfield also fears that people will over-react to an increased genetic risk, by either seeking unproven therapies or becoming fatalistic.

Motluk shared her findings and her conversations with Trevors, Mountain and Caulfield, with CBC's Quirks & Quarks.