Update: FDA approves at-home test kits for inherited cancer: how useful are they?

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Direct-to-consumer testing What does this mean for me?
Risks of DTC testing                                      Guidelines                                              
Benefits of test Resources and references
Testing without healthcare professionals  

What is direct-to-consumer genetic testing?

With direct-to-consumer genetic testing, a person can order their own DNA test directly from the laboratory, with no doctor involved. In the past, testing for inherited mutations that raise the risk for disease has required a doctor's prescription. The FDA recently approved the first direct-to-consumer (DTC) test that looks for three mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These mutations have been linked to increased risk for breast, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate and other cancers. This new approval allows people to order a kit, collect a saliva sample, send it directly to the 23andMe lab for testing, and receive their genetic results without involving a doctor.

What are the risks of the 23andMe direct-to-consumer genetic test? 

  • The 23andMe test is an incomplete test for cancer risk.
    • The test only looks for 3 out of over 1000 possible mutations in BRCA genes (BRCA 185delAG, BRCA1 5382insC or BRCA2 6174delT). These three mutations are found most commonly in people of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent. For people who test positive for a mutation, the 23andMe test provides important information about their risk for cancer. But for people who test negative, the test does not provide much information about cancer risk.
    • The FDA approval statement notes that 1,000 other BRCA mutations also increase cancer risk. Technically, this is accurate, but it is a dramatic understatement. To date, over 5,400 different BRCA mutations (2,549 in BRCA1 and 2,941 in BRCA2) that can increase cancer risk have been identified.
    • Over 25 other genes have been linked to increased risk for hereditary breast, ovarian and other cancers. Mutations in other genes, such as CHEK2, ATM and PALB2 and others also increase cancer risk. So, a person whose 23andMe test is negative for a mutation may still have a different mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 or another gene that significantly increases cancer risk. 
    • The FDA report fails to mention that more complete tests are available to help people understand their cancer risk. Tests are available that look for the thousands of other BRCA mutations as well as mutations in other genes which are not detected by the 23andMe test. The cost for these tests are often covered by insurance and low-cost options may be available.
    • Individuals who receive a negative test result from 23andMe may have a false sense of confidence about their cancer risk. As the FDA cautions: “The test should not be used as a substitute for seeing your doctor for cancer screenings or counseling on genetic and lifestyle factors that can increase or decrease cancer risk.” 
  • Leading experts set guidelines for cancer care, working through an organization known as the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN recommends that people consult with a genetics professional before and after genetic testing. By sidestepping the need for a prescription, DTC genetic testing falls below standard-of-care.

Who can benefit the most from this test?

People of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who have never had BRCA testing will have the most benefit from the 23andMe test. About 2% of all Ashkenazi Jewish people—regardless of personal or family history of cancer—will carry one of the 3 mutations in the 23andMe test.

However, even Ashkenazi Jewish people can have a mutation in one of the over 5,000 other BRCA mutations, or in another gene like CHEK2, ATM or PALB2.  One study showed that among Jewish women with breast cancer, 0.8% have other BRCA mutations and 3 to 4% carry a mutation in another breast cancer gene (see our prior XRAY Does expanded genetic testing benefit Jewish women diagnosed with breast cancer?) These mutations are not detected in the 23andMe test. Therefore, negative results among Ashkenazi Jewish individuals are not conclusive either.

This new 23andMe DTC test has very limited usefulness for the general population. The test may benefit those who are unaware of their Jewish ethnicity and who test positive for one of the 3 mutations.

Healthcare professionals are not involved in the new 23andMe test

In DTC testing no medical or genetic counseling is included. Test results are returned electronically with a written explanation. Further questions and discussion of follow-up testing or treatment options are not included. As the FDA notes, this test should not be used to make health care decisions: “Consumers and health care professionals should not use the test results to determine any treatments, including anti-hormone therapies and prophylactic removal of the breasts or ovaries. Such decisions require confirmatory testing and genetic counseling. The test also does not provide information on a person’s overall risk of developing any type of cancer. The use of the test carries significant risks if individuals use the test results without consulting a physician or genetic counselor.”

The FDA examined how the test is performed and assures people that the test is accurate and reliable. The agency also warns that people should understand what this test does and does not tell them. They caution that without an expert explaining the meaning of the test results, misunderstandings may occur. Many genetics experts agree and believe that genetic testing for health information is best done in the clinical setting in consultation with medical professionals.

What does this mean for me?

The 23andMe test can check your DNA for three specific BRCA mutations. Negative results provide very limited information, and are likely to be confusing to a person who undergoes testing without speaking to a genetics expert. Even if you are of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, you may have a mutation in BRCA1, 2 or other genes that are not included in this test.

Positive results may provide valuable information about risk for certain cancers, and options for manging these risks. However, because this testing is done without medical oversight, people should be aware of these important considerations:

  • Your health care provider will be aware of your result only if you share them.
  • People with a positive results might have to pay additional costs (dependent on individual insurance coverage) for a second test to confirm the results of their 23andMe test. People who have testing with 23andMe should consult with a genetic counselor to understand their results. 23andMe does not provide follow-up testing.
  • For most consumers, the actual benefit of this test will be through follow-up genetic counseling and follow-up visits with doctors. 

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This article is relevant for:

People who are considering or have had direct-to-consumer testing through 23andMe

This article is also relevant for:

Breast cancer survivors


Healthy people with average cancer risk

Men with breast cancer

Ovarian cancer survivors


Triple negative breast cancer

Women under 45

Women over 45

Newly diagnosed

Be part of XRAY:

Questions to Ask
  • Given my personal and family history, will this test be informative?
  • Are there other options for genetic testing? How do they compare to this test?
  • If I test negative, should I consider further genetic testing?
  • If I test positive, what is my cancer risk? What preventative measures could I consider? Should I consider different treatment options?
  • Should I share my 23andMe results with my relatives? Which ones?
  • Can you refer me to a genetic counselor?

Media Coverage 

After this report was published by the FDA, a large number of media sources covered it. This includes NBC News which published “FDA OKs 23andMe home breast cancer DNA test, with warning," containing a misleading graphic. FORCE covered the article in a recent Headline Hype blog post.  


This direct-to-consumer test is a reliable way to identify 3 specific BRCA mutations. Individuals who test negative may carry one of thousands of other mutations in BRCA1 or 2 or in a breast cancer gene that is not included in this test. Consumers may underestimate their risk of breast cancer and other cancers associated with these mutations, including ovarian cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.

For additional information read FORCE advisor board member and 2018 Spirit of Empowerment awardee Dr. Susan Domchek’s piece "At-home genetic testing may be convenient, but it isn’t complete" in Stat News.

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Posted 3/19/18

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