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Should You Use a Home Genetic Testing Kit?

Home Genetic Tests Screen for Cancer and Other Diseases and Conditions

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Updated May 18, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

At-home genetic testing kits may soon join the ranks of home pregnancy tests and at-home drug tests on your neighborhood drug store shelves. These 'do-it-yourself' genetic screening tests claim to determine your genetic risk of several different conditions and diseases, cancer included. Sounds like a great idea, but many experts are concerned with the effectiveness of the tests and how the results will be interpreted by the consumer.

How Do Home Genetic Testing Kits Work?

To do an at-home screening, you must first purchase a test kit. These can currently be purchased online at manufacturer's websites and may be available in drugstores in the future. They are priced at $20 to $30 per kit, which includes a tube or sanitary swab to collect your saliva. Simply seal your specimen according to package instructions and return to manufacturer's lab along with the fee for testing. This can be an additional $79-$279 based on what kind of screening tests you choose.

Results will come by mail, and you may be able to check results online.

Note: Several different manufacturers market these tests. The facts and figures represented in this article are based on the Pathway Genomics genetic screening test, which was supposed to hit the shelves of Walgreens stores May 14th. Pathway Genomics did not provide me with a test and I did not receive compensation from them, either by product or monetary compensation.

Why Are Home Genetic Tests Controversial?

First, you should know that the tests are not FDA-approved and the FDA has challenged the sale of the kits.

Secondly, a lot of factors go into cancer development. Genetics, family history, lifestyle choices and other factors influence of risk of cancer. Sometimes it is unknown why one person develops cancer and another doesn't. There is a lot of grey area in terms of our understanding of why some people develop cancer. Even if you discovered that you had a biomarker for a certain type of cancer through an at-home genetics test, there is no guarantee that you will ever develop it.

So, with that in mind, how will consumers use this information? Will they change lifestyle risks like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption based on these tests? Maybe, maybe not. Could it induce a lot of undue long term stress? Absolutely. Some say that in-office genetic testing has the same effect, but there is one huge difference. You are under the supervision of a doctor when undergoing genetic testing in a professional setting. This means you have an expert to go to who can answer your questions about your results. I don't imagine many 800 number customer service reps having the knowledge about genetics to answer any specific questions about your results. A doctor who specializes in genetics can help integrate your testing results into your healthcare routine by recommending more frequent screenings of certain tests and making other suggestions.

By the same token, when used correctly and under the supervision of a doctor, these at-home genetic tests may have some prevention value. Results may prompt someone to quit smoking or perhaps get screened for breast cancer or colon cancer. This is how the test may prove to be useful long term.

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