In a time when genetic tests are as commercially available as Christmas presents, it is more important than ever to cast a critical eye over the true value of their results. Genetic testing is without doubt a valuable tool – when backed up by strong science and analysed by people who understand the nuances of genetics. Patients need to be aware that not all tests are created equally. Results from a platform such as OCB’s ColoPredict offer far more value than those from off-the-shelf ‘catch-all’ tests, in terms of both accuracy and post-result support.
Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, recently and inadvertently exposed the perils of improper interpretation of such commercial tests. Mr Hancock received the results of his test and claimed to be shocked to learn of his heightened risk of developing prostate cancer. He went on to say that the test may well have saved his life and called for genetic tests to be made available to the wider public on the NHS. Whilst his comments were perhaps well-intentioned, medical professionals were quick to criticize Mr Hancock, pointing out that he had grossly misinterpreted his results. His test results in fact placed him at no major risk compared to the average man of his age, with some doctors claiming that he had caused himself unnecessary anxiety and potentially wasted NHS time with subsequent counselling and follow-up appointments.
This story highlighted the risks of the public taking home-based tests then becoming frightened and confused over dubious or unimportant results. Would the average consumer understand the difference between relative and absolute risk when the Health Secretary didn’t? There would be a huge burden on the health system if everybody wanted to discuss every minor detail of their results with a GP. If this kind of testing is rolled out to the public, it needs to carefully and responsibly managed. Geneticists are still researching how single gene variants interact with a person’s environment, family history, and microbiome to predict a person’s risk for disease. It is a nuanced subject, and rarely is there a simple ‘yes or no’ answer to whether somebody will go on to develop a disease.
Off the shelf genetic tests look at selected markers for a wide variety of things, giving results of limited value. The aim of the ColoPredict test is clear and targeted – to accurately identify populations of healthy individuals who are at a higher risk (5-10 times greater than the average) of developing colorectal cancer. ColoPredict is backed up by strong empirical data, validated in a cohort of 51, 000 people with the results published in globally respected research papers. A well-known commercial genetic testing company tests for only three of over 1,000 known variants for breast cancer, whereas OCB have developed an algorithm of highly validated single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), testing over 40 different alleles. Patient results can then be combined with additional risk factors such as family history to generate a reliable lifetime risk score.
ColoPredict is designed to be used in conjunction with current screening technologies, complementing existing treatment programmes and guiding patients through their results and appropriate next steps. It is not a case of posting results to a patient and letting them figure out what to do next by themselves. If a patient is found to be at high risk of developing colorectal cancer, they are given further support as well as actionable advice on how best to adapt their lifestyle. Individuals using this OCB test can be confident in knowing that their results come from well-validated science and have been analysed by professionals who will support them on the next steps of their health journey.