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DNA talent tests—do not try them at home

Companies’ claims about genetic tests are highly suspect and even dangerous


DNA talent tests—do not try them at home

DNA tests to check children for inborn talents are a burgeoning business in China and gaining popularity in the United States. But the genetic talent tests lack scientific accuracy and could psychologically harm children, experts warn.

Many parents in China hope to give their children an advantage in the country’s competitive educational system by hiring biotech companies to perform genetic talent testing, MIT Technology Review recently reported. One company, China Bioengineering Technology (CBT), lists more than 200 indicators it will assess, including physical talents, shyness, introversion, extroversion, and memory, along with musical, mathematical, and reading abilities. The $2,500 price tag for a full battery of tests doesn’t seem to daunt many. “We get around a hundred or 200 parents testing each week,” a CBT agent told the publication

But experts warn the field of genetics is not so simple, and little, if any, scientific evidence supports the accuracy of DNA talent testing.

“The recommendations being made on the basis of these tests by many companies not only lack supportive evidence but in some cases are scientifically absurd,” a group of bioethicists wrote in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences. Inaccurate results and parental misunderstanding could lead to harmful interventions, said the authors, an international group representing universities in Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, and the United States.

Children who undergo testing may grow up misinformed about their genetic information and come to believe they lack a strength or ability. They might face subtle forms of stereotyping from parents, coaches, schools, peers, and others based on a mistaken trust in test results. “This could lead to disappointment or anxiety in children whose apparent genetic makeup fails to align with their (or their parents’) existing interests or desires,” the bioethicists wrote.

In the United States, companies such as Orig3n offer DNA profiles like the “Superhero” test, which can supposedly reveal innate strength, intelligence, and speed for only $29. The company also sells a child development profile for $99 that it claims assesses everything from fitness and natural abilities for language and learning to behavior and sleep needs. The website says the test can help parents determine if a child is just trying to avoid bedtime by claiming not to be tired or if their son or daughter is genetically wired to need less sleep. But in an investigation by WMAQ-TV in Chicago, Orig3n failed to detect that a sample came from a Labrador retriever, not a human.

In addition to concerns about accuracy and ethics, Christians considering nonmedical DNA testing should look to Scripture, not a genetic profile, to answer questions about who they—and their children—“really” are, said Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace.

“The Christian worldview tells us something about ourselves that modern DNA tests cannot,” he wrote last year. “We trace our origin back to the same place, from the same parents, for the same purpose. Our inclinations toward selfish pride and ethnic division are, therefore, misguided.”

The Lake Erie shoreline near Toledo, Ohio

The Lake Erie shoreline near Toledo, Ohio Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library (file)

Toledo grants Lake Erie legal personhood

Following the lead of some international governments, the city of Toledo, Ohio, has decided it is the proud adoptive parent of a brand-new person: Lake Erie. Last month, 61 percent of Toledo voters approved the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR), granting the Great Lake the same rights as human beings or corporations and declaring city residents the legal guardians of those rights. The measure is a reaction to an algae bloom, blamed on agricultural runoff, that left 500,000 people without drinking water in 2014.

The 10,000-square-mile lake borders four states and two countries along its 870 miles of shoreline and provides 11 million people with drinking water. The new law means any resident could sue polluters to pay for cleanup costs and prevention programs.

Many farmers are fighting back. Just 12 hours after officials counted the votes, Mark Drewes, the sixth-generation owner of a farm 40 miles southeast of Toledo, filed a lawsuit contending LEBOR violates his constitutional rights.

Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, issued a statement against the law and in support of Drewes, noting that LEBOR gives the residents of Toledo authority over nearly 5 million Ohioans, thousands of farms, and more than 400,000 businesses in 35 northern Ohio counties, plus parts of Canada, Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.

“Mark’s farm is an example of the right way of doing things,” Sharp said. “He’s employing a variety of conservation practices, water monitoring systems, water control structures, and uses variable-rate-enabled equipment, and yet he’s vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.” —J.B.

The Lake Erie shoreline near Toledo, Ohio

The Lake Erie shoreline near Toledo, Ohio Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library (file)

Potential Alzheimer’s disease prevention

New York researchers plan to begin testing a gene therapy in May that they hope will one day help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, MIT Technology Review reported.

Despite volumes of research, doctors still do not know what causes Alzheimer’s, but they do know that people with a certain type of a gene called APOE are at greater risk of developing the illness. There are three types of the APOE gene, types 2, 3, and 4. Type 2 lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s, type 3 carries only an average risk, and type 4 greatly increases the risk. Researchers still don’t fully understand the gene’s function, but, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 65 percent of people with the disease carry at least one copy of type 4. For people born with two copies—one from their mother and one from their father—the chance of getting Alzheimer’s is nearly inescapable if they live long enough.

In the study, researchers plan to flood the brains of patients who have two copies of APOE type 4 and already suffer Alzheimer’s or dementia with huge doses of viruses carrying the type 2 APOE gene. They hope it will slow the disease’s progress. It may also lead to a one-time treatment for middle-aged people with the type 4 gene that could inhibit the pace at which the disease develops. —J.B.

Stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries

A health ministry panel in Japan approved a human clinical study, the first of its kind, that uses induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to treat spinal cord injuries, Reuters reported.

iPSCs, which can develop into any cell in the body and are produced in the lab from adult cells, are rapidly gaining scientific popularity. Pro-life groups laud them because they do not require the destruction of human embryos. The research team from Tokyo’s Keio University plans to inject about 2 million iPSCs into damaged areas of the spines of patients who recently sustained injuries that resulted in loss of sensory or mobility functions. They hope the iPSCs will stimulate nerve regeneration.

Last year, clinical trials began in Japan using iPSCs to treat Parkinson’s disease, and the health ministry panel has already approved the use of iPSCS for treating patients with rare eye and blood diseases. Osaka University plans to transplant a heart muscle cell sheet derived from iPSCs into the hearts of patients suffering from serious heart failure, The Japan Times reported. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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