Drugstore Genomics Arrives

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Do you have any Cherokee princess ancestors?

Pathway Genomics, a California-based genotype screening company, is going to start offering its Insight screening tests over-the-counter at 7,500 Walgreen's drugstores at the end of this week. Consumers will buy the test and then send a sample of their DNA in to Pathway Genomics' labs for analysis. According to the company press release:

The Insight™ Saliva Collection Kit contains a small saliva collection kit, simple instructions, and a postage-paid envelope that customers can use to send their saliva sample back to the Pathway Genomics laboratory.  From there, they simply visit Pathway's web site (www.PATHWAY.com) to create their own secure, password-protected account and order an individualized Genetic Insight™ Report for Drug Response ($79), Pre-Pregnancy Planning ($179), Health Conditions ($179) or a combination of all three ($249). Pathway's Genetics Insight™ Reports offer consumers a convenient and affordable way to learn about their personal genetics.

"We're revolutionizing the way people access information about their genetics, and through thousands of convenient Walgreens locations, we're making it easier and more affordable than ever before to order a personalized genetic report," said Jim Plante, CEO of Pathway Genomics. "The value of knowing how genes play a role in our personal lives, and potentially the lives of our children, is critical for making well-informed health and wellness decisions.

Consumers can learn how they are likely to respond to various drugs; gain some knowledge about some disease risks; and finally get to the bottom of those family legends about Cherokee ancestors.

Of course, the usual bioethical busybodies are opposed to allowing consumers to have this information. As the Washington Post reports:

"It doesn't seem like a good use of resources or something people should be spending their money on yet," said Sharon F. Terry, who heads the Genetic Alliance, a Washington-based coalition of patient groups, researchers, private companies, government agencies and public policy organizations. …

"It is reckless," said Hank Greely, director of Stanford University's Center for Law and the Biosciences. "Information is powerful, but misunderstood information can be powerfully bad."

Well, people waste, I mean, spend, money on all sorts of things that I find useless, e.g., major league baseball game tickets and Mouse in the House cat toys, but that's no reason to try to stop them from buying those products and services.

And of course, people surely can misunderstand information, but the way that consumers learn how to use any new product is through trying it out. If the first purchasers of the new Pathway tests find them confusing or not very useful, they will tell their friends and neighbors and Walgreen's find some new vitamin mixture or cosmetic to take up that shelf space.

I have not seen how Pathway displays and explains the information generated by its tests, but I can say that its rival, 23andMe, does a great job in this regard. For example, I got an email just this morning from 23andMe alerting me to five new test results. Those results suggest that I have gene variants that confer a slightly lower risk of melanoma and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease; typical odds of suffering postoperative nausea and vomiting; moderately increased odds of Hashimoto's thyroiditis; and gene variants indicating that I have a typical level of circulating sex hormone-binding globulin. Each new result comes with a report that explains its possible relevance and provides references to the scientific studies on which they are based.

Instead of trying to slow down social learning about genomics, we should let companies and consumers interact, so that they will both learn how better to explain and understand the information such testing will provide.