Sep 14 2007

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Bioethicist Warns on Genetic Risk Test Ads

Posted at 2:29 pm under Science and Technology, Skepticality, Society

Green AppleUPenn Bioethics professor Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., published a commentary on MSNBC today warning women to be wary of TV commercials that promote genetic testing to detect risk of breast cancer.

Salt Lake City biotechnology company Myriad is running TV, radio and magazine ads with the slogan “Be ready against cancer” in Boston, Hartford, Providence, and New York City.

Caplans’ concern is that,

“Myriad is getting awfully close to overselling its testing technology in the guise of trying to educate women about breast cancer.”

His argument is not necessarily against Myriad advertising their $3,000 genetic tests but he has concerns about the fact that Myriad is targeting such a larger population and their claims are vague and wide-sweeping.

Here are the facts that Caplan quotes:

  1. “The genes Myriad offers testing for are responsible for only about 10 percent of all breast cancer. “
  2. Having the gene doesn’t mean you will get the disease at a young age. Cancer may not strike until you’re 50 or 60, so worrying about it from your 20s is a long time.
  3. “Many experts on genetic testing recommend the Myriad genetic test only for women who have close genetic relatives who had breast cancer at a young age — 40 and younger. Perhaps 2 percent of American women meet that criterion.”

Caplan also points to a very serious side-effect of taking such testing in a non-regulated environment:

Health insurance companies may decide to consider a positive test as a preexisting condition, or even completely drop health coverage. “There is not much in the way of legislation that protects women against this sort of genetic discrimination.”

Caplan concludes:

Not only is there a grave risk that the test is being pitched to women who don’t need it, it is not clear what women are to do if they do have the genetic mutation.

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