Geneticist as Matchmaker: Selling Gene Tests for Potential Mates

Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve got a special interest in the biotechnology industry (and am in fact writing a book on the topic). Lots of attention has been lavished on ethical issues in biotech over the last decade, but I’m specifically interested in commercial issues. Hence, I’m less interested (professionally) in social or interpersonal aspects of technologies such as genetic testing, and more interested in corporate moves to develop and market genetic tests (either through health professionals or direct-to-consumer).

So I was interested in the recent move by a Swiss company to offer genetic testing as part of a dating service.

Here’s the story from Wired: Looking for Love In All the Right Alleles

Swiss startup company GenePartner is offering to evaluate singles and couples according to the potential union of their HLA genes, which help regulate immune response.
People may naturally be attracted to mates with HLA profiles different from their own, ostensibly guaranteeing the hybrid vigor of their offspring’s immune systems — and also providing a spark that will last through good times and bad.

And here’s GenePartner’s website. Essentially what they do is, for $199…

GenePartner will analyze your DNA from a sample of your saliva. Based on the test results, you will receive a GenePartnerID number.
When you meet another GenePartner user (in person or online) that you’re interested in, you can enter his/her GenePartnerID in the matching system on GenePartner.com. GenePartner will then determine how genetically compatible you are.

My friend Bryn Williams-Jones has been speaking and writing about direct-to-consumer genetic testing since before it was cool to do so. I asked him for a comment on this new service from GenePartner. Here’s what he said:

One of many genetic information services beginning to enter the consumer marketplace (alongside genealogy or paternity tests), the GenePartner test seems, at first glance, to be innocuous. The test does not attempt to measure or predict disease risk or heritability, commercial tests for which have been subject to enormous criticism in recent years (including a government crackdown on service providers in California). What can be problematic about “love testing”? And really, how different is it to use HLA typing to predict positive matches between potential partners, from say comparisons of blood type (which is apparently popular in Japan), or even astrological signs? And where is the harm? The issue, however, arises with a growing popularisation of genetic information technologies, that build (often without substantiation) on putative scientific studies. While HLA typing may seem to be based on scientific facts (there appear to be some studies supporting the claims made by GenePartner), the actual confidence that consumers should have in such tests needs to be carefully considered. Consumers may well believe there is more accuracy than is scientifically justified…and so they may not be getting what they’re paying for. The harms of such a test may be limited, and caveat emptor may be sufficient consumer protection. But for $199, its probably still cheaper and more effective to just take the potential partner out for dinner…

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