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Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Marketing direct to consumer genetic tests to children

I’ve been looking at the websites of main-player consumer genetics companies to see if they promote testing of children. I’m driven primarily by curiosity, rather than the belief that such testing is necessarily wrong.

A quick survey of the type of people used in promotional website photos is a good way to gauge intended audience. Staid lab-coated researchers, trustworthy medics and wealthy, aging Caucasians feature most often (e.g. deCODEme, Navigenics). 23andme breaks rank by featuring a non-white girl, father and baby. Knome is light on the photos (but if you can afford the price tag you are probably not motivated by identifying with a target consumer group).

The official Pathway Genomics site has a scientist at the bench, along with a picture of a young couple presumably undergoing prenatal counselling. In addition, they sponsor a separate site, called My Genes My Child, that has a very different focus. It contains a fairly balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of testing children, with prominent, unbranded adverts taking you direct to Pathway. My Genes My Child is managed by an organisation called morefocus, who claim not to accept editorial from their sponsors.

In fact, there is a list of similarly sponsored Pathway sites, each with a slightly different twist:

Genetic Health
Nature and Nurture
Adoption DNA
Family Helix
Ancestor DNA

The genetic testing of children can touch a raw ethical nerve, which is maybe why children don't feature on many corporate websites. Even those who are liberally minded about adults exploring their DNA may feel a little uncomfortable where children are concerned.

Adults can choose to test, whereas children may not be mature enough to deal with the consequences. The availability of direct to consumer, rather than physician mediated testing sharpens such concerns. There is the real fear that labelling a child with some sort of “DNA destiny”, especially in these early days of scientific unknowns, has the potential to be detrimental to their upbringing.

23andme seem to have ridden roughshod over any such hesitations. They have no concerns about featuring children on their corporate site, and indeed they encourage the testing of extended families to uncover generational DNA interplay. And they seem to be selling something that people want to buy.

Babies always exert a stronger pull on the ethical heart strings than older children. Although 23andme have a cutesy baby on their homepage, an FAQ warns of the difficulty of collecting sufficient saliva from under threes (and so sidestepping any ethical concerns for this age group).

But there are other ways to get DNA: I have just sent off a DNA sample to deCODEme, and rather than spitting I had to scrape a stick inside my cheek. I reckon I could collect my 20-month-old son’s DNA this way (yes, it would be a struggle, but no more than the twice daily teeth brushing battle).

So, it seems like most genetic testing companies are not overtly promoting testing to children, with the exception of 23andme (who do not appeared to have suffered as a result), and Pathway whose anonymous approach may have slipped under the radar.

Regardless of your views on the promotion of direct to consumer genetic tests to children, it is happening. At least the main players are backed up by sound science and peer reviewed research, which cannot be said by the proliferation of more disturbing child talent sites – more on these in the next post.

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