Chances are, you’ve heard of home genetic tests that help identify your risk of genetic diseases based on family ancestry. You can order a kit online or by phone for about $200. You swab the inside of your mouth for DNA and mail the sample back to learn about your ancestral origins.
The Food and Drug Administration allows a genetic testing company to identify and share up to 10 potential genetic health conditions based on ancestry.
Dana Zakalik, M.D., oncologist and director of Beaumont’s Cancer Genetics Program at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, said it can be confusing, and even dangerous, if genetic test results are not explained by a trained genetic specialist or genetic counselor.
“At-home DNA tests only provide certain information that can be used for a limited number of health concerns,” said Dr. Zakalik. “DNA doesn’t lie, but the testing we do in a hospital or clinical setting is very specific to each patient and is based on personal and family health history.”
The home kits work the same as a DNA swab used by a certified genetic counselor or a physician, but are limited to 10 medical diagnoses that have been given the green light to be shared with consumers. Conditions ranging from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and celiac disease to blood clots, organ and tissue disorders are among the genetic risks that have been approved for sharing with consumers.
“The knowledge we obtain from genetic testing can have a powerful impact on an individual’s life,” said Dr. Zakalik. “In the appropriate medical setting, we can identify people at high risk and implement strategies to prevent cancers and other illnesses from occurring and reoccurring.”
Genetic conditions can be passed down by both men and women. For example, a father can pass on a gene mutation to his daughter, or a mother to her son. Information obtained from medically guided genetic screening allows people to work directly with a genetic counselor to take risk-reducing interventions, including drug therapy, surgery and chemoprevention.
“Our program entails more than a swab test,” said Dr. Zakalik. “Each patient participates in a comprehensive counseling program. It’s a team approach - including physicians, genetic counselors, surgeons, radiologists and social workers.”
While home genetic tests are convenient, affordable and can even fulfill a person’s curiosity, genetics experts say there are many other risk factors that are way beyond what a home genetic test kit can provide.
“We want to prevent people from seeing a positive result for an illness like Alzheimer’s and assuming the worst,” said Dr. Zakalik. “Results can empower patients. Even if they’ve chosen the home or online option, the results should be shared with a medical team to chart the best course of action in preventing future illness.”
Beaumont’s Cancer Genetics Program offers patients a comprehensive counseling program including:
- review of personal, family and medical history
- discussion of the role genes play in the development of cancers
- personal risk assessment for hereditary cancer
- discussion of potential legal and ethical issues. Federal laws maintain patient confidentiality, the right to privacy and protection from discrimination relating to a patient’s genetic information
- description of genetic testing process
- information about cancer and illness risk reduction and prevention strategies.