Tests Purchased from Four Web Sites Mislead Consumers
GAO-06-977T: Published: Jul 27, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2006.
Scientists increasingly believe that most, if not all, diseases have a genetic component. Consequently, genetic testing is becoming an integral part of health care with great potential for future test development and use. Some genetic tests are sold directly to the consumer via the Internet or retail stores, and purport to use genetic information to deliver personalized nutrition and lifestyle guidance. These tests require consumers to self-collect a sample of genetic material, usually from a cheek swab, and then forward the sample to a laboratory for analysis. Companies that market this type of test claim to provide consumers with the information needed to tailor their diet and exercise programs to address their genetically determined health risks. GAO was asked to investigate the "legitimacy" of these claims. This testimony reflects the findings of GAO's investigation of a nonrepresentative selection of genetic tests. Specifically, GAO purchased tests from four Web sites and created "fictitious consumers" by submitting for analysis 12 DNA samples from a female and 2 samples from an unrelated male, and describing this DNA as coming from adults of various ages, weights, and lifestyle descriptions. GAO also consulted with experts in genetics and nutrition.
The results from all the tests GAO purchased mislead consumers by making predictions that are medically unproven and so ambiguous that they do not provide meaningful information to consumers. Although there are numerous disclaimers indicating that the tests are not intended to diagnose disease, all 14 results predict that the fictitious consumers are at risk for developing a range of conditions, as shown in the figure below. However, although some types of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, can be definitively diagnosed by looking at certain genes, the experts GAO spoke with said that the medical predictions in the tests results can not be medically proven at this time. Even if the predictions could be medically proven, the way the results are presented renders them meaningless. For example, many people "may" be "at increased risk" for developing heart disease, so such an ambiguous statement could relate to any human that submitted DNA. Results from the tests that GAO purchased from Web sites 1 and 4 further mislead the consumer by recommending costly dietary supplements. The results from the tests from Web site 1 suggested "personalized" supplements costing approximately $1,200 per year. However, after examining the list of ingredients, GAO found that they were substantially the same as typical vitamins and antioxidants that can be found in any grocery store for about $35 per year. Results from the tests from Web site 4 suggested expensive products that claimed to repair damaged DNA. However, the experts GAO spoke with stated that there is no "pill" currently available that has been proven to do so. The experts also told us that, in some circumstances, taking supplements such as those recommended may be harmful. In addition, results from the tests that GAO purchased from Web sites 1, 2, and 3 do not provide recommendations based on a unique genetic profile as promised, but instead provide a number of common sense health recommendations. If the recommendations were truly based on genetic analysis, then the 9 fictitious consumers that GAO created for these sites using the female DNA should have received the same recommendations because their DNA came from the same source. Instead, they received a variety of different recommendations, depending on their fictitious lifestyles. For example, when GAO created lifestyle descriptions stating that the consumers smoked, they received recommendations to stop smoking. In contrast, if GAO said the consumers never smoked, they received recommendations to continue to avoid smoking.