Monday, 12 July 2010

Children and genomics - the underworld of DNA talent testing

My last post looked at how direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies promote the testing of children. Here I explore the shadowy underworld of genetic talent tests.

There is a clutch of companies who market DNA tests to children without the backing of real science. They hail mainly from Singapore and China and their marketing machines are getting slicker.

My Gene Profile has now created a reputable looking front-end which contrasts to their original flaky website featuring a mohican baby. They are based in Singapore, but list offices in the UK (Haslemere) and US (Connecticut).

Their newer homepage has an amusing picture of two scientists looking gobsmacked by a cyclohexane molecule (which I presume is meant to be a nucleotide). The rest of the site would also be hilarious if it wasn’t for real. They offer an “Inborn Talent Genetic Test” and a “Disease Susceptibility Genetic Test”. Drilling down to the talent test gives a list of 40 genes (2/3 of the way down this sprawling page), including such gems as:

Propensity for Teenage Romance Gene
Drawing Gene
Self Detoxifying Gene

The new URL still hides links to scam-like behaviour, for example add /vip to bring up information sent to targeted individuals last year:
Make Biggest Commission Paycheck by Riding On World’s Fastest Growing Industry: DNA and Genetic Market!
Another Singaporean offering, Map My Gene, sells the same two tests. Francis Collins and Robert Plomin (Professor, Kings College London), are quoted as offering their support. The company ask for a copy of your passport or identity papers to be submitted along with your DNA sample – a frightening combination to part with.

Again from Singapore, Magic Fidler is a company running children’s music classes with a sideline in DNA testing to determine musical ability. The number of tests offered is a familiar sounding 40:
For $2,000 the scientific results can pinpoint your child’s strengths and weaknesses in 40 areas, including IQ, EQ, memory as well as artistic and athletic abilities. For $2,800, you can get the DNA Test plus 12 weekly music classes.
The music teaching may well be wonderful, but the science is not. The site testimonials summarise all that is wrong with this approach (based on children tested in January 2010):
“My first reaction was: ‘Are you sure this is my child?’ Kiran (aged 7) scored very high in intelligence and creativity, but I always thought he was just average....While he likes singing to pop songs, he’s never expressed an interest in music lessons. So I was surprised that he has a good sense of rhythm and is supposedly good at learning different instruments."
“What surprised me was that it didn’t show up in his DNA that he has a flair in maths. I always thought that he is quick at understanding concepts, which even the elder sister has difficulty understanding.”
“Since we received the results, my husband and I had many interesting discussions about our girl (aged 2). Isn’t she supposed to be talented in arts? (She’s always doodling!) Well, it’s not in her DNA. Didn’t she learn to walk only after 15 months old? (A friend’s kid of the same age was already running around.) Yet, the results showed she has a natural flair for sports, with high endurance gene."
The music school act on the spurious DNA results:
“If the child’s DNA results show that he has strong genetic propensity for music and creativity, for instance, he might be put in a more intensive class, which teaches composition skills.”
The tragedy is that such results (which may as well come from a random number generator) lead parents to dismiss the best way of finding out about their children’s talents – their own observations.

Finally, a couple more quotes to further illustrate the potential influence of such information. Firstly from The Genetic Center who sell a “Child Talent Gene test”:
"This child is very thoughtful and focused," Shanghai Biochip's Healthcare Director Huang Xinhua explained while looking over a girl's test results. "I suggest she go into management."
Secondly, the American Atlas Sports Genetics who sell a test based on the ACTN3 gene:
“Although, my daughter is only 9 she now knows that she had a the Sprint, Power, & Strength advantage which we can use to market her Athletic Career and hopefully a wonderful scholarship from this process.”
Note that the parent wants to market the child – has genetic testing turned her into a commodity?

For now, such websites will only affect those credulous enough to believe the manufactured science. But the genomics juggernaut is on a roll, bringing with it more robust links between personality traits and DNA sequence. When predictive testing finally comes of age, should we allow children to be tested? And if so, how will we ensure that eager parents are aware of the caveats, subtleties and statistics that hang off each data point?


  1. Excellent work, please keep it up, these need smoking out and there will be more and more of them as genotyping comes down


  2. Thanks Keith - yes, it's only going to become more widespread as the price of sequencing falls.

  3. Very good work, I think it is amazing what DNA testing can show. Thanks for the blog.

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