KITS that test for health risks from obesity to Alzheimer's may soon be available on drugstore shelves, along with foot powder and denture adhesive. The company that makes the kits likely will profit. The benefit for customers is less clear.
Pathway Genomics of San Diego says its Insight test kit can identify as many as 72 genetic conditions, from possible drug side effects to the risk of developing prostate cancer.
Many people want to know whether they'll develop breast cancer or pass on a crippling disease to their children. The opportunity to reduce the uncertainty that clouds their future health will be a powerful inducement for many people to take the test.
The test kits were supposed to go on sale last week at more than 6,000 Walgreens stores. But the drugstore chain decided to hold off until Pathway addresses concerns raised by the Food and Drug Administration.
If that happens, customers will pay $20 to $30 for materials to collect a saliva sample and send it off to Pathway's laboratory. For an extra $79 to $249, Pathway will test the sample for everything from sensitivity to certain drugs to the chances you'll get multiple sclerosis, and provide access to the results on a secure Web site.
Some experts are concerned about what people may do with the results. A low-risk result for prostate cancer might convince men that they don't need to check for the disease. A higher-risk result for breast cancer could induce women to seek unneeded care.
Scientists also warn that the link between genetics and disease often is unclear. They question the usefulness of the tests and the wisdom of sharing results with customers rather than their physicians. The FDA agrees and wants proof the tests are accurate.
Similar tests have been available online since 2007, and a DNA test for paternity is available at Rite Aid stores on the West Coast. But this would be the first time such a broad-based test has been made available in neighborhoods across most of the country.
People who take the test should be aware of its limitations in unlocking their genetic secrets. And they would be wise to talk to their family doctor about how to interpret its results.
Information is good. Knowing what to do with it is better.