The first wave of companies is coming on the scene to peddle genetic tests that purport to help people see if they have genes associated with possible higher incidences of a particular disease or condition. Sound a little fishy? Well, given the complexity of genomics today, it is.
One of the first of these tests is a $399 do-hickey designed by genetics researcher John Kelsoe to test for gene mutations sometimes found in bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression). Kelsoe is a renowned researcher in the area of psychiatric genetics. His rationale?
“The goal of this is to try and help doctors make an accurate diagnosis more quickly so the patient can be treated appropriately,” Kelsoe told the Associated Press. “Anything is going to help, even if it just helps a little bit.”
Really? Given that the same researcher suggests “that bipolar disorder probably results from a combination of genetic factors and life experiences, and that the presence of these gene variations does not at all mean that someone will, in fact, develop the disease. He admits, too, that his findings about the genetic basis of the illness are far from complete,” according to the Associated Press article.
Well, of course bipolar disorder’s roots are complex and not yet well-understood. The presence of the mutations only means you may be at greater risk for the disorder, such as you may be at greater risk for heart disease if you have a family history of heart disease.
But we can already determine that far more cheaply, quickly and effectively with a simple clinical interview. Takes about an hour, and you’ll come away with an actual fairly reliable diagnosis of bipolar disorder or not (for a lot less than $399). Heck, you can even use this wonderful Internet contraption to take a free online screening quiz for bipolar disorder today, which is probably even more accurate than Kelsoe’s genetic test.
I can give you similar results to the genetic test by asking you one question — Do you have a family history of bipolar disorder? Yes or no. If you answered “Yes,” you’re at 7% to 25% greater risk for getting the disorder. If you answered “No,” you’re less likely to get the disorder.
The genetic test does little better (a “positive” result means that you may be up to 2 to 3 times more likely to have the disorder). The gene variations the test looks for are rare even among those with bipolar, meaning there is the possibility for a false negative — the test found nothing, but you could still get bipolar disorder.
So we’re not really sure of the need of such a test, especially for a relatively complex disorder like bipolar disorder. And until we’re much further along in our understanding of genetics’ role in disorders such as bipolar disorder, we consider all these kinds of genetic tests scams — elaborate tests draped in scientific mumbo-jumbo that provide little actionable information, or information that can’t already be readily obtained more easily and cheaply elsewhere.
Read Dr. Carlat’s take on this as well: A Gene for Bipolar Disorder? We Wish.