1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · News

Predictive Genetic Testing on Popular TV

Issued 10.11.2007: released 10.11.2007


On Thursday 15th Nov, ITV screened a documentary, the Killer in Me which showed GMTV presenter, Fiona Phillips, former England footballer John Barnes, Heart FM disc jockey Toby Anstis and former newspaper editor and political presenter, Andrew Neil undertake DNA tests to find out their susceptibility to common diseases such as heart disease. Egenis researcher Dr Hannah Farrimond questioned the motivations behind the show.

‘The programme could be seen as essentially a commercial for Genetic Health, which whilst backed by a reputable scientist, is a commercial company which seeks to legitimise its private testing through the media. For example, the link on the ITV website (http://www.itv.com/Lifestyle/KillerInMe/ ) is to the company website and its expensive tests, when in fact, many of these tests (BRAC, thrombosis, Alzhemiers) are available free from the NHS simply by going to your GP and getting referred to clinical genetics departments. That there was no reference to the tests offered by the NHS is a serious omission on the part of the programme makers and implied that Genetic Health were the only source of this type of testing.

Dr Farrimond also felt the science was presented in a misleading fashion: ‘Secondly, although some of the tests are well-established and clinically validated tests, others were not, yet they were all treated as if they were of equal use. The Cardio test in particular is a questionable one, given that the conclusion was made that people were 'low risk' or 'low genetic risk' of heart disease. Heart disease is a complex multi-factorial disease which may have over 250 genes/markers associated with it, yet they were only testing for a few and it was unclear what risk this would confer on the individual (unless they had, say, familial hypercholesterolaemia). Even if they were 'high risk' on those few markers, we simply don't know what other genes/gene-gene and gene-environment interactions are implicated in the development of cardio-vascular disorders, any tested individual might have had other (untested) protective genes, for example, which would drastically alter their risk. This particular test and the one for 'cancer' go beyond current scientific consensus on the contribution of genetics to these diseases.’

Dr Farrimond was quick to point out the tensions between the commercial world of programme making, and the best practise standards within health care: ‘ I was concerned in the case of Fiona Phillips who had perhaps the most clinically worrying family history of early onset Alzheminers (and breast cancer, although the onset age and other affected relatives wasn't clear) that she wasn't given independent non-directive genetic counselling by someone other than within the company, as would be offered by NHS genetics departments and is considered the 'gold standard' of genetic counselling. To me, it looked like the company directors were trying to persuade her to know the result, which is not non-directive and they clearly had an agenda concerning the impact of this on television and to promote their tests.

The overall tone of the programme was over-dramatic, trying to induce vicarious fear and distress in the viewers over the potential results of genetic testing, with phrases such as 'killer disease' and 'window on their potential deaths' and 'the spectre of disease'. It is created a climate of fear around genetic testing at a time when the NHS is trying to routinise the clinically valid testing of certain populations to improve their health. Luckily the viewers saw through this over-dramatic fear-inducing programme and switched off, confirmed by the fact that the viewer share dropped from the usual share at that time on a Thursday!’

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