The Importance of Balance in Evaluating DTC Genomics

Way ForwardEarlier this week the New York Times published a generally alarmist and one-sided piece (“Buyer Beware of Home DNA Tests”) advising consumers to steer clear of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing and genomic services providers. The Times piece advises consumers to opt instead for a certified medical geneticist or genetic counselor even as it acknowledges, in the next paragraph, “a relative shortage of genetic counselors to clarify the significance of test results, and the fact that most practicing physicians lack the knowledge and training in genetics to interpret them properly.”

There’s no need for me to dissect and evaluate the arguments against DTC genomics made in the article. That task has been ably carried out by Daniel MacArthur, Blaine Bettinger and Jens McCabe. And it’s worth mentioning that the Times’ DTC genomics coverage has been relatively rich and varied (see, e.g., the now infamous “spit party” coverage, 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojicki’s Q&A on the Freakonomics blog or Steven Pinker’s excellent piece in the Times magazine, “My Genome, My Self”).

I do want to weigh in, however, on the potential consequence of the paternalistic medical establishment viewpoint that is advanced in the Times article, which paints DTC genomics as an industry lacking in analytic validity, clinical validity, clinical utility and (in what was a new concept for me) “ethical validity.” In failing to acknowledge any of the benefits provided by DTC genomics (which MacArthur, Bettinger and McCabe all highlight), the Times article invites readers (including legislators) to plausibly conclude that a legitimate solution might be simplyto restrict the business of genomic interpretation to traditional medical professionals. This is, in fact, exactly what Germany is proposing to do on a national level, but this type of genetic paternalism—largely a byproduct of a genetic exceptionalism perspective—is an extreme position, with most legislators taking a more measured approach, at least to date.

There’s no doubt that there are substantial limitations to the services provided by DTC genomics providers, and it is important that those limitations be identified and presented to consumers, ideally by the companies themselves but, if need be, as mandated by regulation. But the services also have the potential to provide benefits to individuals, including the various forms of “personal utility” highlighted by the joint NIH-CDC workshop I reported on last month. Failing to recognize both that potential and the power of new technologies and business models to realize it risks turning our backs on just the kind of leading edge innovation that has created the potential in the first place. Regrettably, in assessing an issue that is all about the future, the Times’ prescription is entirely backward-looking.