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Labs Turn DNA Into Personal Health Forecasts

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A01

SEATTLE -- The boxes arrive in the mail by the dozens each day and are stacked in neat rows in the laboratory. Inside are swabs of the inside cheek, drops of blood, material that the senders hope will give them a peek at the life they have been dealt by their genes.

Over the next few weeks, Genelex Corp. technician Dascena Vincent and her colleagues here will conduct what they call a nutritional genetic assessment, analyzing the DNA samples for certain deficiencies. Problems in the genes that handle dietary fats? That could put you at risk for heart disease. Trouble with those that help rid your body of toxins like smoke? Cancer could be an issue later in life. And how about those associated with metabolizing vitamin D? Be watchful for signs of deteriorating bone strength.

Genelex Corp. Chairman Howard Coleman says genetic testing could "radically transform health care," but some scientists are critical of personal DNA health reports. (Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)

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Based on the findings, the company provides recommendations on diet, lifestyle changes and categories of medications that might work best for an individual. Depending on how many tests the customer has ordered, the bill -- which typically isn't covered by insurance -- could be $400 or more.

Companies such as Genelex are pushing medical science into territory that was once the realm of gods and horoscope writers. They are making predictions about what someone's health might be in five, 10, 20 or more years. Other testing facilities around the country offer genetic assessments of what they claim is people's future propensity towards diabetes, liver disease, blood clots, dementia -- even alcoholism and gambling.

There are now tests for more than 1,100 ailments, double what was on the market five years ago, according to GeneTests, a public education service based at the University of Washington and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Until recently, genetic testing was limited to pinpointing mutations associated with diseases such as Huntington's or cystic fibrosis. Today's analyses are more about probabilities and "what-ifs."

The allure of the new tests, say physicians and consumers who have taken them, is that they give people a sense that they can change their fate by taking preemptive action. The soaring popularity of such tests is fueling a new "DNA diet" craze with health clinics in Los Angeles and New York offering meal and supplement recommendations based on your genes and boosting the sale of self-help books such as "Feed Your Genes."

To some, the assessments are the first results of the advances scientists promised when they declared that they had mapped the human genome in 2000. "The adoption of genetic testing has the potential to radically transform health care. It will be the end of one-size-fits-all medicine," said Howard Coleman, Genelex's founder and chairman.

But other scientists worry that the commercialization of the nutritional genetic tests is premature.

They say that while some tests may have a valid scientific basis, others are based on research that is less universally accepted or even has been contradicted by subsequent studies. They also say our understanding of the interplay between genes, lifestyle and environmental factors is weak, and they fret that consumers might take the results too literally. By adjusting their lives based on the results, patients may end up doing more harm than good.

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