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Net gene tests dismissed as 'snakeoil'

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Scientists have warned punters to avoid DIY gene tests currently enjoying a bit of a boom on the internet, because there is no evidence they work, The Guardian reports.

Tests including those the makers claim can "measure a person's risk of developing intractable diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's" are increasingly available, although there's nothing to suggest they benefit patients, according to researchers at a genomics and public health shindig at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

While NHS genetic tests will look for a single gene mutation known to cause a disease (example: cystic fibrosis), the "over-the-counter" tests are designed to "look for sets of genes scientists have linked, often tenuously, to a person's susceptibility to disease".

Cambridge University's Dr Ron Zimmern said even if there's "theoretical evidence the genes are linked to a disease, that's often far too little to go on. There's not one shred of evidence that these tests benefit human health".

In one specific case, a team led by Muin Khoury, director of genomics and disease prevention at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, tested two US kits which claim to assess cancer risk. "Both look for more than a dozen genes, but only two genes appear in both tests. The problem is companies are taking early scientific discoveries and bundling them up into tests too quickly," he said.

Khoury said scientists in Iceland recently pinpointed a gene linked to type two diabetes and hope to market a test. He said even if the result was positive, the testee would simply be advised to eat better and do more exercise. "If that's the case, why buy a test?"

Regarding whether customers should be protected from the dubious benefits of gene tests, Dr Zimmern asked: "What line should society take? Should it say that if it doesn't harm you, you can allow the snakeoil salesmen? Or does society have an obligation to make sure the consumer is only buying tests that work? I think industry has to get together with Government to set up studies to see whether these tests make any difference to people's health." ®

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