No worries, DNA testers

1 minute read

I’ve started teaching my course in anthropological genetics again this semester. I’ll be posting relevant material here every so often, particularly as we continue to make progress on the Neandertal and Denisova genomes.

One thing I do in the course is give the students a very long list of NY Times-level articles, showing ways that genetics has come to influence society (or ways that social factors influence genetic research). The full list is hard to put together – easy to share PDFs over university network, but hard to extract links. So I’ll be working on that because the whole list (featuring Amy Harmon’s “DNA Age” articles from 2008) will be of interest to many readers.

In the meantime, the first article in the series is one from this week, by John Tierney (“Personal DNA tests deliver predictions with few side effects”)

[Dr. Eric Topol] and colleagues at the Scripps Translational Science Institute followed more than 2,000 people who had a genomewide scan by the Navigenics company. After providing saliva, they were given estimates of their genetic risk for more than 20 different conditions, including obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, several forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimers. About six months after getting the test results, delivered in a 90-page report, the typical persons level of psychological anxiety was no higher than it had been before taking the test. Although they were offered sessions, at no cost, with genetic counselors who could interpret the results and allay their anxieties, only 10 percent of the people bothered to take advantage of the opportunity. They apparently didnt feel overwhelmed by the information, and it didnt seem to cause much rash behavior, either. In fact, the researchers were surprised to see how little effect it had. While about a quarter of the people discussed the results with their personal physicians, they generally did not change their diets or their exercise habits even when theyd been told these steps might lower some of their risks.

That’s an interesting result. Tierney’s account accentuates the bottom line conclusion, which is that ordinary, healthy adults are generally unworried by genetic tests that show some long-term health risk.

Should they be worried? That’s what I’ll ask the class.