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December 2019 | Published by RCPA

Issue #098

Sending your DNA in the post – is it safe?

Sending your DNA in the post – is it safe?

It’s that time of year again, and many people are hitting the shops to try to find that perfect Christmas gift for friends and family. Increasingly, at-home DNA test kits are being advertised as the perfect gift idea, playing on people’s natural curiosity about themselves and offering the chance to go beyond information provided by relatives or from historical documentation. We spoke to Genetic Pathologist, Doctor Melanie Galea, to understand more about what these tests can actually tell us, and what we should be aware of.

“At-home DNA tests are best described as recreational genetic tests; they are not in the diagnostic realm whatsoever. They work by looking for those variations across a patient’s genome which are consistent with a particular ethnic origin. By using a specific algorithm, and by looking at combinations of variants across the entire genome, it is possible to work out what ethnic background a person has.

“Whilst the tests can deduce what ethnic origins are present in you, they cannot tell you anything about the chronology of when that happened, and they cannot tell you who your parents are. The tests will also not tell you any information about your predispositions to any conditions or be able to diagnose any conditions. They have no diagnostic implications at all,” said Doctor Galea

At-home DNA kits can be easily bought online and require a small saliva sample to be sent off in the post for analysis. Within a relatively short space of time, participants will receive a link to their online test results. Whilst the tests themselves do not reveal specific relatives, some companies offer the option to search for other people in their databases who share the same DNA.

“It is important to note that pathologists are not involved in this process. The tests are provided by direct to consumer companies, and therefore are subject to different regulations than diagnostic testing. One thing to be aware of is what these companies will do with your information. Some may involve signing an agreement which says that the information gained from your DNA can be used for other purposes. This means that the company owns a copy of that information which may then be used to generate profits or can be sold onto third parties,” said Doctor Galea.

Whist at-home DNA kits like these should be used only as a light-hearted conversation starter, it is important to note that family health history is important to an individual’s personal health. Complex disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure or certain cancers are all influenced by a combination of genetic factors, environmental conditions, and lifestyle choices. A family medical history can therefore identify people with a higher-than-usual chance of having a number of common disorders, however, should be overseen by an experienced and independent medical practitioner.

“If you are concerned about a particular genetic diagnosis in your family, then this is definitely not the test for that. The best first port of call is your medical practitioner who can refer you to a specialist in that area,” said Doctor Galea.






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