Dollar Signs In Double Helixes
Firm Brings Genetic Testing to the Masses

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008

For years, women have been able to go to the drugstore to answer a question: pregnant or not? Now science has taken testing a step further, and those same drugstore shelves are stocking kits to answer another, equally pressing question: daddy or not?

The Identigene DNA paternity test was rolled out at Rite Aid stores across the country this month and sells for $29.99 -- plus $119.99 for laboratory processing. Identigene promises results in three to five days that are at least 99 percent accurate.

"This test really is about providing peace of mind, answering questions of paternity for people who simply want to know," said Douglas Fogg, chief operating officer for Identigene, which is based in Salt Lake City.

Although Identigene's product is the first kit to be sold in stores, at-home paternity tests have been available online for several years. The kits are just one more example of what some are calling the democratization of DNA. As the cost of decoding and analyzing our genes plummets, companies are even starting to offer "personalized genomics" tests to consumers that promise to help them discover what diseases they are likely to get or even who their soul mate might be.

Rite Aid started selling the paternity tests on the West Coast in November, the first time such a kit had been sold in a retail store. Fogg said his company sold 10,000 kits to the chain in three months. Ashley Flower, a Rite Aid spokeswoman, declined to comment on the product other than to confirm its existence.

"It's just another product we're able to offer our customers," she said. "We always do try to be first to market with innovative health-care services."

The testing kits are also available at Meijer stores in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Rite Aid has 5,000 stores in 31 states and the District. The kits are not available in New York . CVS said it plans to begin carrying the kits soon on its Web site and in stores. DNA paternity-testing kits have generally ranged from $400 to $2,000, according to the American Pregnancy Association, a nonprofit group. Identigene was able to lower the price on its kit because of the anticipated volume of sales, Fogg said.

The company has performed paternity tests for government agencies and family law practices for more than 15 years. About 10 years ago, it began selling DNA collection kits online directly to users. The idea to sell in stores came up about a year ago, when company executives realized that they were missing customers who had no access to the Internet or were uncomfortable entering their personal information online.

Consumer sales now account for about half of Identigene's business, Fogg said. As in most paternity tests, users must submit samples of DNA in the form of cheek swabs from the mother, child and purported father, to a laboratory for examination. Technicians analyze 16 locations on the chromosomes for each participant and assign a numeric value to each. The child's DNA should contain half of the mother's and half of the father's. Negative readings are 100 percent conclusive, while positive readings are 99 percent accurate, Fogg said.

But while the reading may be accurate, don't expect it to hold up in a court. Legal paternity tests require a third party to verify that the participants are who they say they are and that the samples were not tampered with, among other things. The lab analysis is the same for legal and retail tests, Fogg said. Identigene sells legal paternity tests online for $399. Prenatal paternity tests are available for $449, and results take up to four weeks.

Still, John F. Banzhaf III, professor of public-interest law at George Washington University, said such tests are likely to be most useful in avoiding a trial rather than during one. Consumers should not think they can submit their DNA samples to Identigene and get "a certificate of some sort and wave it around in court," he said.

"The idea here is to give you a probably very, very accurate test initially, which might then eliminate the need for a court proceeding," Banzhaf said.

The American Pregnancy Association said that about 3 percent of the 40,000 calls to its help line each year are related to questions of paternity -- from women unsure of the father of their child, men wanting to know if they are fathers and adults wondering who their parents may really be. President Brad Imler said it is crucial for users of the kits to be mentally prepared for the answers.

"If they are not connected to professionals when receiving those results, it can be devastating and can certainly stir up disturbing emotions," he said.

But sometimes, curiosity must be sated. Identigene's slogan is "For questions only DNA testing can answer."

"This is certainly an inexpensive first step that can be taken," Fogg said.

Staff writer Rick Weiss contributed to this report.

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