DNA testing, at-home DNA testing, bioethics

DNA Tests Reveal Unexpected Complications and Truths

January 22, 2009 07:28 AM
by Shannon Firth
One man’s quest to complete his family tree has unearthed long-kept secrets for some members of the Kincaid clan.

Kincaid DNA Project Reveals Family Intrigue

Don Kincaid, a Texan seeking to establish his ancestry and reconnect with distant relatives, encouraged more than 140 people with variations of the surname Kincaid to take DNA tests and submit their results online. The Los Angeles Times reported that while bringing some Kincaid relations together, test results have led to disturbing truths for others.

Two brothers discovered they each had a different father. Their mother, now elderly, rejected accusations that she either had an affair or adopted one of her sons.

Perry Kinkaide, 66 and a distant relative of the brothers, told the Times, "I'm sure in the history of the Kincaid family, there's been some fooling around. If that's unique to this family, I'd be surprised."

In answering the question, “How many of us are not our father’s children?” the Times cited a 2005 analysis which compiled the results of more than 17 blood and DNA test studies. It concluded that the rate of “non-paternity” averages about 4 percent, though it differs along cultural and geographical borders.

For determining both ancestry and illness, retail DNA tests have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Time magazine rated 23andme, a DNA testing service that can determine one’s likelihood of 90 different traits and disposition, one of Time’s "Best Inventions of 2008."

Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of the agency, calls the test results “the digital manifestation of you.” She told Time magazine that she was comfortable sharing her and her husband’s test results, including her unborn child’s risk of contracting Parkinson’s disease, because "I think in 10 years it will be commonplace to learn about your genome."

According to Time, however, skeptics argue that genes are only one component of disease and often aspects of one’s environment are responsible for “triggering” their responses.

“Since less than a tenth of our 20,000 genes have been correlated with any condition, it's impossible to nail down exactly what component is genetic,” said Anita Hamilton in Time.

Still, DNA testing services continue to expand. Head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Dr. Francis Collins, the man in charge of the government team responsible for the human genetic map, told Wired, "[S]cience is running ahead of public policy.” Collins warned, “The majority of claims that are made on those websites aren't scientifically sound."

In May 2008, in response to the proliferation of drugstore paternity tests, R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison told MSNBC, “We all need to take a step back and realize that this is different than many tests that you take. This is a life-changing moment.”

Rick Borchelt, a representative of the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told MSNBC he worried that people might misinterpret results and make unwise medical decisions.
But some people find the the benefit of privacy outweighs other risks of at-home DNA tests. Ethics Illustrated magazine cited the case of Victoria Grove, who used an at-home DNA test to determine her risk for emphysema. Grove chose at-home testing over consulting her doctor, because she feared that if she tested positive and her results were logged in her medical records, she would have trouble finding insurance or even employment.

According to findingDulcinea, state governments such as California and New York have attempted to regulate freely operating gene-testing services. In June 2008, California unsuccessfully mandated that all such companies end direct-to-consumer testing. Only one agency, HairDX followed orders, and submitted to the state’s terms. New laws require New York and California residents to meet with a doctor before ordering any online tests. “Overall, 24 states prohibit or limit so-called direct-access testing without a doctor or other medical professional's involvement,” Forbes reported.

Related Topic: DNA discoverer finds secrets in his genome

James Watson won the 1962 Nobel Prize for his work with DNA, but caused a backlash a few years ago when he made racist remarks regarding the intelligence of Africans. In 2007, he discovered that he himself has African genes. Watson’s DNA included 16 times the number of genes of black origin than a typical white European. Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics, the company that conducted the test told British paper The Independent, “This level is what you would expect in someone who had a great-grandparent who was African."

Reference: What is direct-to-consumer genetic testing?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, most direct-to-consumer tests involve individuals swabbing saliva inside of their cheeks, while others may involve having blood drawn at a clinic. Test results are given by telephone, online, or through the mail. As the National Library of Medicine explains, “Genetic testing provides only one piece of information about a person’s health—other genetic and environmental factors, lifestyle choices, and family medical history also affect a person’s risk of developing many disorders.“

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