At-Home DNA Tests for Detecting Cancer

At-home DNA tests for genetic cancer risk evaluation are becoming increasingly popular in the market. Direct-to-consumer tests are fairly inexpensive and do not require doctor’s prescriptions and appointments. Almost anyone can buy these test kits online and get the results relatively quickly.

Key takeaways:
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    At-home DNA tests for genetic cancer risk evaluation are tests people can take at home to predict their genetic risk for certain types of cancer.
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    At-home DNA tests detect particular cancer-tied risk factors (specific gene mutations) in a customer’s DNA.
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    At-home DNA tests for detecting cancer can be ordered privately, they do not require a doctor's prescription.
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    At-home DNA tests are not a silver bullet and have many limitations. Therefore, before taking them it is highly recommended to consult your doctor.

It seems that it couldn't be easier and simpler. However, despite their tempting advertisements and fascinating descriptions, experts say that at-home-DNA tests for genetic cancer risk evaluation promise more than they can deliver. So how useful they are?

What are at-home DNA tests and how do they work?

At-home DNA tests (also called direct-to-consumer DNA tests) like most medical-grade genetic tests look for specific inherited mutations (changes) in a person’s genes, chromosomes, or proteins. These tests can help predict the probability of certain inherited diseases, such as diabetes, celiac disease, late-onset Alzheimer, or some types of cancer.

As the name of the tests suggests, direct-to-consumer DNA tests are the medical service that the customer can order directly from the company. After ordering the company usually sends the customer a kit with a detailed description of how to collect and mail back the sample of saliva, blood, or a cheek swab. The following steps of the test take place in the company's laboratory, where DNA is extracted from the obtained sample and tested for the specific gene variants that are linked to the disease of interest. Finally, the company sends the obtained results back to the customer, thus ensuring complete privacy.

There are a variety of different companies that provide at-home services for cancer risk screening and their market is still growing. However, it is important to note that there is only one direct-to-consumer test that has U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Before ordering the test, it is highly recommended to inquire about the company performing it. The following factors should be considered: quality standards ensured by the company, company business credibility, clarity of presented information to the customer, expert conclusions after obtaining results, customer data privacy protection, etc.

Do at-home DNA tests accurately predict the risk of cancer?

After test performance, the customer usually gets the results to report that contains the information on whether the analyzed mutation was detected, as well as a description of its impact on the patient’s cancer risk.

However, it is important to mention that different same gene mutations can produce different levels of cancer risk. Besides, direct-to-consumer DNA tests can detect only a limited number of certain gene mutations. In this case, the test can conclude that a customer isn’t at risk for cancer, but the actual result can be different as the test may have missed specific gene mutations that should have been evaluated before a determination was made.

Moreover, genes are not the only factors that determine a patient’s risk of cancer. Other factors, such as age, diet, exercise, and family medical history are equally important. Thus, only a well-trained genetic specialist can correctly assess risk based on the results and other factors that may lead to particular types of cancer.

Differences between at-home DNA tests and most medical-grade genetic testing

One of the main differences between at-home DNA tests and most medical-grade genetic testing is privacy. Genetic testing has to be prescribed by the patient healthcare provider. That way test results are received by both – patient and the doctor. On the contrary, direct-to-consumer DNA tests, are ordered directly from private companies. In this case, the customer pays for the services from his pocket and gets the result privately.

Another difference is the service quality assurance. Most at-home DNA tests available on the market are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For this reason, their performance conditions may differ among laboratories. In contrast, while performing patient sample examination by medical-grade genetic testing only validated laboratory devices and protocols are used.

Finally, the most important difference – is test sensitivity. Usually, medical-grade tests analyze a wider range of tested gene variants compared to direct-to-consumer DNA tests. For example, medical-grade testing evaluates thousands of BRCA gene mutations which all are linked to the increased risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. In contrast, one leading at-home DNA kit tests only three. That's why at-home DNA tests are limited in scope.

What to know before ordering an at-home test detecting cancer?

Nowadays medical-grade genetic testing for cancer risk assessment plays an essential part in early cancer diagnosis. It tells doctors if a patient has a high risk for disease and helps to decide if there is an earlier cancer screening need. Whereas, direct-to-consumer DNA tests for cancer risk are still limited because they cannot provide the complete picture needed to predict the disease risk accurately. So if you are concerned about your cancer risk, talk with your doctor first.


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