Genetic Future

Sneaky genetic testing

New Scientist has an investigation into companies offering surreptitious genetic testing – basically, providing analysis of DNA samples obtained without permission from others. Currently popular uses are searching for evidence of non-paternity or infidelity (by testing underwear for strange DNA), but obviously the potential exists to also look for markers of potential disease risk, a la Gattaca – an attractive prospect for employers, insurers, or those hunting for the flaw-free spouse.

Human nature being what it is, there’s little doubt that a considerable market for non-consensual genetic testing will exist for as long as the practice isn’t strictly illegal. Remarkably, New Scientist notes that in the US “there is no federal law clarifying people’s right to privacy with regard to abandoned DNA”, and that relevant state laws are not being used to prosecute non-consensual testing companies.

It may take a highly public case to correct that – as it did in the UK, where an alleged 2002 plot to steal hair from a royal family member to test for non-paternity led eventually to a ban on non-consensual genetic testing.

In the meantime, caveat emptor – the article notes poor regulatory control in the US over the accuracy of some of the tests being offered. Given the near-magical power afforded to DNA testing in the public mind, and the potentially explosive consequences of an erroneous non-paternity call, this seems like a fairly dangerous state of affairs.

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  1. #1 Mariah
    January 22, 2009

    I saw on a blog discussing “DIY” biology that a guy was suggesting that he could test his neighbors for BRCA1, or paternity, or whatever–without having to pay licenses to the evil corporations that hold the patents.

    He thought that was cool.

  2. #2 c23
    January 23, 2009

    Is there really any way to stop this? Suppose it’s outlawed. What’s to stop somebody from opening a lab in Vanuatu, and taking the specimens by mail? It would just be a matter of time before this happened.

  3. #3 Daniel MacArthur
    January 23, 2009

    Hi c23,

    You’re right, of course – and the same thing applies to pretty much any moratorium on technology (e.g. human reproductive cloning, embryonic stem cell transplants): it it’s possible, and if there’s demand, you can guarantee that someone will offer to do it in Togo, or wherever.

    So I accept that a ban on this won’t prevent it from happening. However (if the severity of the penalties and the perceived risk of being caught are high enough), it will at least prevent it from becoming widespread, because the inconvenience associated with finding and doing business with an off-shore lab, and the risk to the customer of facing criminal charges in her home country, will make most people think twice.

  4. #4 Terry
    January 23, 2009

    You must walk in another’s footsteps before making judgment on something you do not really understand. I had worked with a DNA testing company from 1997 – 2007, and the company provided discrete paternity testing, siblingship, grand-parentage, and infidelity tests. As for the discrete paternity testing, I see why people want to do the testing without first bringing up the question to their spouse, which would probably result in a heated argument. Furthermore, there are many other ways that a person becomes aware of non-paternity and infidelity. It is human nature that these occur, and people find out about it, with or without DNA testing. So I do not know why DNA testing should get such a bad rap. It is just another tool that reveals the truth. And why should the marketing of that be regulated? I do believe that the lab doing the testing should be accredited, but it should not be illegal to do discrete and anonymous DNA testing? Are you saying we should do everything we can to keep infidelity and non-paternity as secrete? And if someone finds out about it that they are somehow justified because of our lack of regulation in this area for any violent or criminal actions that they take? I believe that this is much more complicated than many who discuss it really understand. What is so awful about the truth and the methods used to uncover it.

  5. #5 Tera Eerkes
    January 23, 2009

    I think Terry might still work for a DNA testing company.

    It’s a good indication of a problem when the relationship between two people raising a child with each other is in such jeopardy that it seems more reasonable to secretly acquire and test the other’s DNA than to sit down, face hard truths, and have a conversation with that person.

    From a legal aspect, this is a Pandora’s Box that we should quickly work on closing. Creating a robust legal framework for the property rights of individuals over their DNA and the ability to successfully prosecute those who abuse these rights can and should be done, even if perfect enforcement is not available.

    Although, it becomes more complicated when considering the ownership and health decision making rights of parents over their children, etc.

    Add one more thing to Obama’s list.

  6. #6 c23
    January 23, 2009

    DM, the big difference between the technologies you mention (cloning, transplants) and genetic testing is that genetic testing is a heck of a lot easier for both sides. The customer mails in a tissue sample and the testing service, using techniques known by thousands of people (more? per previous comment DIYers say they can do it), tests them and emails the results to the client. Compare to human reproductive cloning, where you have to come up with eggs and a surrogate mother (and maybe a few hundred extra surrogate mothers if it doesn’t work the first time), and relatively fewer people in the world (zero?) would know how to do it. Even if it would be possible, the market for it is presumably small to non-existent.

    As for getting caught, I can think of only two ways that would happen:
    1) You tell on yourself.
    2) Your possibly-cheating wife has installed a keylogger on your computer and has been spying on everything you do.

    1 is easy enough to avoid. 2 is probably illegal itself.

    In other worlds, this will probably be illegal like marijuana (ubiquitous), not like nuclear weapons or human cloning (hard to come by).

    It would actually be better if this were legal and done in labs that were known to know what they were doing than in some fly-by-night in the third world for roughly the same reason that it would be better to do Sandoz LSD than LSD made in some entheogen-head’s bathtub.

  7. #7 Charles Iliya Krempeaux
    January 25, 2009

    @Mariah said…

    I saw on a blog discussing “DIY” biology that a guy was suggesting that he could test his neighbors for BRCA1, or paternity, or whatever–without having to pay licenses to the evil corporations that hold the patents.

    Mariah, what’s the URL to the blog?

  8. #8 Cliff dna testing
    January 28, 2009

    This is so cool , I do not think it is an invasion of privacy unless you acquire the sample by tresspassing on someone elses property , buy it is definately one for the courts to decide.

  9. #9 Peter Umapp
    June 25, 2009

    There is a great article written on this topic here:

    Any man who seeks to outlaw DNA Paternity testing is a fool begging to be cuckolded.

  10. #10 drravish
    July 15, 2009

    determining the parentage is a ok and great! actually in one sense it is right of people to know the truth.. as u know falsity does’nt perish much time, only the truth prevails… so actually it is boon for us to know about ourselves!!

  11. #11 nunuto
    August 22, 2009

    Any thoughts on genetic testing to be done on a future, unspecified date (whenever technology allows it) through a consent process obtained from patients and clinical trial subjects through non fully disclosed ( either due to trade secret or because presently unknown ) testing procedures is also a topic of concern to me. Once a patient is discharged or unavailable to the hospital, or the study participant’s trial is concluded, the testing cannot be stopped, health related important information may not be fed back to the owner of the sample… talk about abusive use of one’s DNA proprietary rights !!

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