Consumers turn to their DNA for answers
For years, Art Thomas sifted through the stories and rumors traded among relatives and he wondered: Exactly where did I come from?
Last fall, Thomas, a retired information technology manager in Springfield, Ohio, turned to his body for answers. He scraped a cell sample from inside his cheek, mailed the swab to a test lab and waited for science to supplement his extensive genealogical research.
Thomas' quest to unlock the secrets of his own DNA is far from a solitary one. A small, but fast-growing number of consumers are paying for a proliferation of partly self-administered genetic tests, hoping to determine everything from paternity to their propensity to develop certain diseases to their own ancestry.
Some health-related tests have stirred skepticism among doctors and genetecists concerned about their validity and consumers' ability to interpret the results. But more consumers are proceeding with such tests to satisfy their curiosity, and marketers are responding.
Discount retailer Target Corp. now sells DNA collection and profile kits online. Some specialty drug stores have begun stocking DNA-based nutritional tests. Ancestry tests have taken on new prominence with a project by the National Geographic Society encouraging people to explore "the ultimate human history, as written in our genes."
The increased marketing of self-administered DNA testing is most evident on the Internet, where numerous companies offer an array of products. It's hard to know how many consumers are taking these companies up on their offers, but public interest is clearly growing, observers say.
"People are curious," said Kelly Ormond, an associate professor at Northwestern University and immediate past president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. "I think, in general, many people take the approach that if I could know about my health or something in my family, I'd like to know."
The many tests available serve very different purposes. But some observers see a commonality in their appeal, finding an audience with consumers who have gradually come to see genetics as less overwhelming and potentially useful.
There "has been an increasing expectation of what this technology would be able to deliver," said Rosalynn Gill-Garrison, a co-founder and chief science officer for Sciona Inc., a Boulder, Colo., company that sells a line of tests designed to help people match their diet with their genetic predisposition. "Now, have we met all those expectations? I don't think so. But certainly people are very interested in wanting to use this technology to learn more about themselves."
The business of marketing DNA testing to the public barely existed a decade ago. Awareness has increased greatly since the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, an effort by the federal government to map DNA.
Some direct-to-consumer DNA tests have attracted negative attention. Last year, a group of women sued the marketers of the Baby Gender Mentor test, which promised to determine the gender of a fetus. They accused the company of failing to honor its guarantee when the test results proved wrong. Other types of tests have attracted new interest, like those featured in a recent television show on the Public Broadcasting Service that traced the ancestry of Oprah Winfrey and other black celebrities.
Consumers who have purchased some of the tests see the decision in very personal terms.
For the past 15 years, Thomas has poured his free time in to researching his family tree. But Thomas, who is black, remained uncertain about pieces of the family legend that said both a great-grandmother and a great-grandfather were white.
He studied a faded photo of a family reunion, taken in 1920, that shows five rows of relatives gathered on and around the porch of an Ohio home, noting that some of his predecessor were, indeed, much lighter in complexion than others.
Thomas, whose undergraduate degree is in biology, knew something about genetics. So, when companies began marketing tests that might help clarify the mysteries of his family's past, he paid attention. But it wasn't until late last year that he felt comfortable with the products being offered.
Thomas spent just under $300 for a package of two tests from Family Tree DNA, owned by Genealogy by Genetics, Ltd. of Houston, and $175 for a different test marketed by Ancestry by DNA, owned by DNA Print Genomics Inc. of Sarasota, Fla.
The results arrived in the mail about a month later, confirming and amplifying Thomas' earlier findings that his family tree includes some white ancestors. In fact, the test showed, his genetic makeup was 49 percent European origin, 48 percent African-American and 3 percent Native American.
"It confirms a lot of oral history," Thomas says.
The motivations of Chuck Bryceland of Bronxville, N.Y., were very different. He became interested in genetics seven years ago when his daughter was born with a condition that caused breathing difficulties. Tests determined the condition was not caused by genetics and it was remedied through surgery.
But Bryceland, who runs a financial advisory firm, remained fascinated and bought stock in several biotech companies. It wasn't until a month ago, though, that he purchased two tests -- one to examine his genetic propensity for heart disease, another to screen for his body's ability to absorb nutrients -- after spotting them on the shelf in a drugstore while traveling.
He paid $199 for one test, $99 for the other, which told him that he is unlikely to develop heart disease but that his body poorly absorbs Vitamin B. Since then, he's been campaigning to get his wife, his parents and other family members to take the tests, too.
"If there's information out there that we can use to help our health then why wouldn't I take it?" Bryceland said.
As marketers of such tests continue to reach out directly to consumers, more people may pursue a similar course of action. But its difficult to know what they'll make of the results, says Gene Fowler, a geneticist who teaches a class on ethics and DNA usage at Oregon's Portland State University.
"For the first time, we're starting to get at the biological base of what makes a human," Fowler says. "I think you're going to have more and more people coming into their family doctors waving a piece of paper and saying: 'What do I do with this?'"
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