What are home DNA testing kits?
There are lots of different home DNA testing kits available. In terms of your health and wellbeing they can be used to:
- determine how certain foods and other lifestyle factors might affect you
- see if you are at risk of developing certain conditions, like some cancers and cardiovascular disease
- assess how you might respond to certain medicines and treatments
They are largely purchased online and are run by companies based in the UK, USA and further afield.
What do the tests involve?
Home DNA tests involve collecting a sample of your DNA. You’ll usually do this yourself using a swab, which you swipe along the inside of your cheek. After you’ve taken the sample, it is sent by post to a laboratory for testing.
Once at the laboratory, your genetic material (or DNA) is mapped and analysed against a series of known genetic combinations and patterns.
Are home DNA tests a good thing?
Home DNA testing has great potential to enhance health and wellbeing as we know it. It may help to give a more personalised experience for patients and consumers, and empower them to make better, more informed choices about their health.
Insights from DNA testing may also help people to actively change their behaviour – especially before more serious problems develop.
Home DNA testing is an emerging market which champions new technology and insight, and where there’s often a period of learning and evolving. But, by being aware of the current challenges, you can navigate the market as effectively and safely as possible.
Things to consider about home DNA testing kits
If you’re thinking about doing a home DNA testing kit, I’d suggest that you consider the following.
1. The scope and intended purpose of your kit
When buying a kit, it’s important to think about the information that you’ll receive. Being told that you’re genetically predisposed – this is, more likely to develop – a medical condition can be difficult. So ask yourself, “what will my test tell me and am I prepared for the answer?” Remember to evaluate the risks that this information poses to both you as an individual, and on other family members too.
Importantly, keep in mind that being genetically predisposed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be affected. There are lots of other factors at play such as your environment and lifestyle choices. But if there’s a chance that your home testing kit can expose you to this information, it’s important to be prepared.
My advice would be to first check what the kit detects. If you could be told that you’re at increased risk of a medical condition, make sure the company providing the kit also offers counselling. Counselling can help you to make an informed decision before taking the test. It can help you to consider the risks and benefits, and decide if you want to go ahead with it or not. If you do decide to go ahead with the test, make sure the company can also:
- help you to interpret your results
- support you afterwards, if you need help
2. The potential for follow-up tests and procedures
Following the results of your home DNA test, you should also consider the possibility of needing to have further tests and investigations. Some follow-up tests or procedures may be invasive and cause discomfort or worry. You’ll need to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of this carefully, because being genetically predisposed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be affected.
Of course, there are positives too. For example, home testing can encourage individuals to engage in less ‘risky’ behaviours such as screening, much earlier, to help prevent a condition developing. Testing can also benefit individuals’ future health and wellbeing, by encouraging them to take action, and adopt a healthier lifestyle now.
So again, my advice would be to know the remit of your DNA test, and what action you might be expected to take on the back of it. For any possible actions, ask yourself: “Can I do this and am I ready for it?”
3. The outcome and ability to implement change
Leading on from my previous point, it’s important to consider if it is, or isn’t, possible to make a positive change after your results. For example, there aren’t currently preventative measures for some degenerative diseases, like the neurological condition Alzheimer’s disease. Being told that you are at risk following DNA testing can be difficult to process. This may be especially true if you receive this information without any support.
But, there are types of genetic testing that do not pose this risk. These include those that investigate certain lifestyle factors, such as:
- your ability to process caffeine
- what type of exercise you may benefit best from
- whether you are more prone to injury or not
It is thought that by understanding these factors, you may be able to eat, move and thrive in ways that suit you best. And better still, they identify things that you can adopt and change for the better.
But, how does the evidence stack up?
4. The possibility of future advancements in research and regulation
As our understanding of genetics grows, so too will the best available research in this area, and possibly our interpretation of it. But in my view, this isn’t something that should halt innovation in its tracks. Instead, we should view this as the opportunity to advance and develop; to test our current thinking and improve upon it.
It’s thought that there are over 250 different companies already providing home genetic testing, and the market is set to get even bigger. What’s encouraging is that, in addition to innovation, we are also starting to see improvements in regulation to support patient safety in this growing market.
Regulation around genetic testing was once lacking in a way that helped to support the safe growth of genetic testing in the health and wellbeing space. However, in 2017 new regulation was published relating to in vitro medical devices (IVMDs), which includes genetic tests.
The regulation outlines stricter processes to assess these devices before they reach the market, including the evidence needed to support them. IVMDs currently in development must legally comply with this regulation – and by 2022, the intention is that all products will be of this standard. Of course, there are more questions to be answered and work to be done, but overall, these are encouraging advancements.
5. Your personal data
One other important consideration is the sensitivity of your genetic information and how you can protect this data. While genetic information can be used for good, for example to advance scientific understanding and potentially develop new treatments, it needs to be used fairly, and with your full understanding and consent.
If you’re thinking of purchasing a home DNA testing kit, make sure it’s from a reputable company, and be sure to look at their privacy or data protection policy. Make sure you understand who owns your data and that they are clear about what they will (or won’t) do with it. Ask yourself: “What happens to my DNA sample after I receive my results?” Perhaps it will be destroyed. If not, why has it not been destroyed, and are you happy with how it will be stored and used in future?
It’s an exciting time for home genetic testing and, with the correct support, I believe it has the potential to present great opportunities to both patients and the healthcare industry.
Ever since medical school I have been asking my patients about their family history, comfortably knowing that this information will help me manage their health concerns. I believe that genetic testing can be seen as an enhancement on conventional history taking; a way of being more pinpointed about risk. It will be possible to move from a position where someone may possibly have inherited a risk factor, to one where we have a clear indication on whether they have, or have not. This information can help direct both investigations for conditions, but also encourage healthy lifestyle changes for the individual.
And as we become more fluent in interpreting genetic information, our predictions should become more accurate. The information we can give to our patients can also be more personal and specific.
Although the uncertainties around this growing market should rightly be challenged and explored, it’s important to keep this concept in mind. As clinicians, we are comfortable investigating family history to determine risk and inform clinical decisions. And as patients, we don’t hesitate to offer this information up. So, if home genetic testing can be done safely, securely, and with enough consideration, and our understanding of risk and how we interpret this continues to grow, what’s not to like?
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