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Sites That Sell Cancer Gene Tests Don’t Tell Customers The Whole Story, Study Finds

A study found that websites that sell genetic tests for cancer tout benefits of the tests but not their limits or accuracy.

Sites That Sell Cancer Gene Tests Don’t Tell Customers The Whole Story, Study Finds
[Photo: Markus Gann via Shutterstock]

Consumer tests that analyze DNA from tumors in order to help personalize a patient’s treatment are in something of a Wild West period. Though President Obama in January announced that he would seek to invest $215 million in personalized medicine research, the field is still quite new, and online marketing of personalized care products remains unregulated. Sellers of these tests say they can help patients and doctors improve cancer treatment based on genetic information, but a recent study reveals that online marketing to consumers often fails to explain the limits of these genetic tests.

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Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute picked apart 55 websites that offer products or services related to what the researchers call “personalized cancer medicine,” or drug treatments that are based on mutations or defects in DNA taken from the subject’s tumor. They found that the websites often only tout the benefits of these products and fail to articulate the tests’ limitations.

“In general, the benefits of these personalized cancer products are reported much more frequently than are the limitations,” says the study’s first author, Dr. Stacy Gray, in a press release. “We found a lot of variation. Some of the information is good, but all of it needs to be looked at critically by consumers and health care providers.”

The study found that 88% of the 55 websites surveyed offered at least one “nonstandard” test that “lacked evidence of clear clinical utility in routine oncology practice,” according to the press release. Indeed, the investigative team’s biggest worry echoed the concerns voiced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when it banned DNA test company 23andMe from offering genetic analysis to customers. The fear is that people will act upon the results of their genetic analysis reports before medical experts can verify each test’s accuracy and applicability. This is especially worrying since 44% of the websites surveyed by the study offered some form of personalized cancer care.

Until more research is done into medical treatments based on genetic testing, consumers should be wary of marketing claims made about personalized cancer care products.