updated 7/27/2006 5:44:58 PM ET 2006-07-27T21:44:58

Direct-to-consumer DNA tests are promising nutrition advice customized to people's genes, but congressional investigators said Thursday the tests are of no medical value and can mislead people.

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"I want to send a message to consumers across the country: Buyer beware," said Gregory Kurtz, who led a probe by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

At issue is a field called nutritional genomics, which researches how complex interactions between genes and diet may affect people's risk of future illnesses. Many genetic authorities say the field has promise but that much more research is needed before offering DNA-tailored advice.

Yet on the Internet and in some stores, people can buy kits, costing from $99 to $1,000, that let them send in a cheek swab for DNA analysis, fill out a lifestyle questionnaire and receive nutrition advice.

Investigators bought kits from companies selling through four Web sites, and created 14 pretend customers. The questionnaires described consumers of different ages and lifestyles, but were paired with DNA samples from Kurtz's infant daughter and a male agent at the GAO.

The advice varied greatly, but mostly contained generalities such as do not smoke and that the "customers" with bad diets may risk heart disease, the GAO reported.

One company advised three of the fictitious customers to buy a "personalized" dietary supplement blend, costing more than $1,880 a year, that the company claimed could repair damaged DNA, Kurtz said.

Sales pitch for supplements
Genetics experts told the GAO there is no pill that can repair DNA damage and that some of the blend's mega-dose vitamins might even cause harm. Plus, the advice was not personalized because it was the same blend even though two "customers" had different DNA and all three had very different health risks, Kurtz said.

A second company recommended a supplement blend for $1,200 a year that contained the same multivitamins that can be bought in any drugstore for about $35. "It's a rip-off," Kurtz said.

Investigators also sent one lab in the test a urine sample that actually was the synthetic urine used to cheat on drug tests. The lab's analysis showed no sign if it could tell the urine was fake.

Representatives from the gene-testing companies testified Thursday that they were providing an important service and were criticized unfairly because they had not had a chance to see and respond to the allegations.

"We stop where the science stops," said Rosalynn Gill-Garrison, chief science officer of Sciona Inc. of Boulder, Colo.

Asked how the company could offer different nutrition advice for the same DNA, Gill-Garrison said that was to be expected because the advice is tailored largely to the questionnaire about customers' current diet and health.

But Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who called for the investigation, said there is no assurance the DNA testing is accurate, and that the fledgling industry's health claims get ahead of proven science.

"I'm very alarmed that consumers are being preyed upon," he said, urging for greater federal oversight.

Gene testing can be done either using test kits approved by the Food and Drug Administration or through certain specially certified laboratories. The FDA told Smith it is investigating whether the tests highlighted Thursday violated any regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile, federal health officials urged consumers to consult their doctors or trained genetics counselors before undergoing any genetic testing.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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