Pros and cons of genetic testing

More and more companies from fields other than medical services are entering the market for genetic testing, which make it possible for people to easily find out the risks of their developing certain types of diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

It is necessary for people to correctly understand the nature of genetic testing available, including its accuracy, before they decide to undergo the tests.

Recent entrants into the market include Internet firms like Yahoo! and DeNA. The number of companies offering genetic testing services more than doubled from 340 in 2009 to around 740 in 2012. Many more companies are planning to enter the business because genetic testing services are not a medical activity and does not require a license.

The companies, which are providing what is considered to be an information service, entrust the job of actual examination of genes to testing institutes.

Still, commercialization of the services carries some problems. The selling point of commercial genetic testing is that by sending a mouth swab sample to a testing institute, one can know his or her risks of developing various diseases. The biggest issue is the accuracy of such tests.

A genetic testing venture 23andMe, in which Google has invested, has started offering the Personal Genome Service to “provide health reports on 254 diseases and conditions” for slightly less than $100. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November 2013 ordered the company to halt the sales of its saliva collection kit due to concerns over the accuracy of its genetic examinations.

People need to be aware that the results of genetic testing only have a high degree of correlation with the risks for certain diseases. In addition to genes, acquired factors such as diet, smoking, drinking, stress, lack of sleep and lack of exercise are also responsible for some diseases, including cancer.

Users of genetic testing services should know that the discovery in genetic examinations of the presence of irregularities that raise the risk of developing certain diseases does not necessarily mean they will develop them.

So, it is not wise to rely solely on genetic testing. The results of testing may cause some people to be unduly pessimistic about their future. The providers of genetic testing services must be careful when explaining test results to people.

The providers also should handle data on individual examinees’ genes with utmost care because they are personal information. Leakage of such data must be prevented at any cost. There are moves among testing institutes to use data from genetic testing for research purposes. There must be no lapses in the management of data.

The government needs to quickly set down rules to ensure the reliability of commercial genetic testing. At the very least, providers of such services should be required to make clear to users the purpose and limits of tests, their possible disadvantages and the scientific grounds of their clinical usefulness, as well as company policy on handling personal information including genetic data acquired from the test and the relevant information on testing institutes.