Parents Want Genetic Tests for Their Children, Study Finds

Despite questions about the merits of genetic test kits sold to consumers, many parents apparently are interested in such evaluations for their children.

study published in the journal Pediatrics found that parents were “moderately” interested in genetic tests to find out whether their children might be at high risk later in life for diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Based on the results, as the The Wall Street Journal reports, the study’s authors are urging doctors to be ready for parents’ questions about such testing. On one side of the debate over the tests are those who argue that early information on the likelihood of developing a serious condition will give children a chance to make changes, such as going on special diets, to help prevent the onset of a disease.

In the other camp are people who believe that young people shouldn’t have genetic information imposed on them until they are mature enough to make important health decisions.

Although some of the companies that sell the tests directly to consumers online discourage the testing of minors, many, such as the Google-backed company 23andMe, perform evaluations for children.

At the same time, many medical authorities and regulators question the value of consumer genetic tests, regardless of whether the evaluations are for adults or children. In addition to the tests’ questionable quality, their results often are likely to be misunderstood.

“These tests usually don’t offer a clean bill of health and can be hard to interpret even in the best scenario,” the lead author of the Pediatrics study, Dr. Kenneth Tercyak of Georgetown University Medical Center, told Reuters.

Tercyak and other researchers on his team surveyed 219 parents of children ages 17 and younger. The parents were quizzed about their attitudes toward tests intended to detect the likelihood of conditions such as colon, skin or lung cancer, as well as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

On a scale of 1 (not at all likely to have their children tested) to 7 (very likely), the average score came in at 4.3, which the researchers regarded as moderate interest overall in the evaluations.

As FairWarning noted in a recent commentary, direct-to-consumer genetic kits have drawn withering criticism since 2006, when the the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the test firms make medically unproven predictions and provide results so ambiguous that they are meaningless.

Last year, in a follow-up GAO inquiry, investigators sent the same DNA samples to each of four companies, and wound up receiving wildly varying results. In one case, a  DNA donor was declared by one company to be at below-average risk of getting prostate cancer and hypertension, while other test kit companies evaluating the same DNA sample alternately found the donor to be at average or above-average risk.

Last month, following two days of hearings on consumer genetic tests by an expert panel, a Food and Drug Administration official said the agency might require some of the evaluations to be ordered or interpreted by a doctor.

 

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Lilly Fowler

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Lilly Fowler is assistant editor at FairWarning.

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