Only You Can Prevent Genohype

Arthur Caplan

If you type “genetic testing” into a search engine and take a quick trip around the Internet, you will be in for quite a journey. You will find companies offering to test your DNA so that you can trace your genealogy back across the eons of time. Some offer to find you a mate by testing your DNA. They say that genetic testing will mean better sex, less infidelity, and healthier offspring. Still other companies are online touting genetic tests to optimize your food intake or to help you plan on the right diet if you are overweight. The field of spitomics—putting your saliva in a cup and mailing it off to a lab for analysis—is exploding.

The Internet is not the only place you can find free-flying hype about genetic testing. You can also find it at your corner drugstore.

The drugstore chain Walgreen’s is interested, pending Food and Drug Administration approval, in entering into an agreement with Pathway Genomics to sell its Insight test kit. If you spit in a cup and send your saliva off to Pathway, they promise to tell you what risks you have for developing Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, psoriasis, and blindness. In addition, the company says you can find out how caffeine, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and blood thinners might affect you in terms of dangerous side-effects.

The reality is that whether we are talking about Internet dietary advice or corner drugstore home testing kits, genetic testing is not ready for primetime. Not only is genetic testing not ready for sale at the local drugstore, it is not yet ready for distribution at your doctor’s office.

While many of us are eager to know what our biology holds in store for our health or the health of our children, and not a few of us would love to know what to eat, what supplements to take, or whether our great great-great-granddaddy was a potentate or a peasant, genetic testing is not yet accurate enough—or reliable enough—to tell us anything of any use about these matters. Genes may be the blueprints of life, but currently it takes a genetic engineer to read and interpret them.

Right now no government agency regulates the accuracy of genetic tests; they are a service, not a product. There is no requirement that competent counseling be available to answer questions about the probabilistic information you will get back from today’s genetic tests. And no one is policing the direct-to-consumer advertising nonsense that promises a better romantic life through DNA testing.

What is worse, the hype around spit-in-a-cup home genetic test kits is such that you might go away believing that if you do not have, say, a gene for breast cancer risk, then you can still smoke two packs a day, eat a diet high in fatty foods, or live downwind from an oil refinery and not have to worry about cancer. Environment, lifestyle, and early or sustained exposure to toxic substances can do plenty of harm to your health. Genes are a part of the story about why we get the illnesses we do, but only a part.

As you contemplate the increasingly commercial world of genetics, consider this—no one passes genetic testing. Every one of us has dozens of risk factors, one or more of which will result in our death someday if an accident doesn’t claim us first. Most of these risks you can do little to alter. For the rest, following good health habits and making prudent lifestyle choices are the best you can do, and you don’t need to spend a hundred dollars sending your saliva off to a distant lab of unknown skill to find that out.

The rush to make a buck through genetic testing is doing far more harm than good. If you want to be as healthy as you can be, forget spitomics for now, put down that beer, and walk over to the local gym.

Arthur Caplan

Arthur Caplan is director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics and a nationally prominent voice in the debates over cloning and other bioethical concerns.


If you type “genetic testing” into a search engine and take a quick trip around the Internet, you will be in for quite a journey. You will find companies offering to test your DNA so that you can trace your genealogy back across the eons of time. Some offer to find you a mate by …

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