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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 18:15 GMT
Row over gene testing kit
The product is designed to offer lifestyle advice
A firm which sells a genetic testing kit through the Body Shop has been criticised by a genetics watchdog.

GeneWatch UK says the kit, made by Hampshire-based company Sciona, is "a rip-off" which misleads customers.

Scientists have also raised concerns about the You & Your Genes product designed to offer dietary and lifestyle advice based on an individual's genetic make-up.

We provide you with a 'zebra crossing' for your health, allowing you to make informed choices about your diet and lifestyle

But both Sciona and the Body Shop have defended the kit, which they say is designed to promote healthy living.

Sciona says that by matching lifestyle to their unique genetic profile, subscribers to its service will achieve a higher level of general health.

But there are concerns that the firm is exaggerating the strength of research about the relationship between genes, diet and health, and downplaying potentially serious consequences of gene testing.

Subscribers, who pay an annual fee of 120, submit a DNA sample from the inside of their cheek and complete a lifestyle questionnaire.

Sciona, which has 300 subscribers so far, advises on its website that: "The You & Your Genes screen will identify your body's nutritional needs, making recommendations on what to eat to ensure your body and diet work in harmony."

Future ills

GeneWatch UK says the tests, available at 11 Body Shop UK stores, are unregulated, misleading and recommends customers not to take them.

The watchdog's deputy director Helen Wallace told BBC News Online there may be serious implications that customers had not been warned about.

Body Shop store
The tests are available at 11 Body Shop stores
She said there was a danger of people who were told they had "good genes" thinking they could cope with a bad diet - which was not the case.

Customers could also learn something about their possible future health - such as susceptibility to certain health conditions - that they may not want to know, she added.

Some scientists are concerned that existing scientific knowledge about genes does not justify Sciona's claims.

Roland Wolf of Dundee University, one of Britain's leading experts in the field, told the Guardian Unlimited website: "We still don't have a very clear-cut message about the relationship between any of this and diet."

Paolo Vineis, professor of biostatistics at the University of Turin, told the Guardian it was unethical for Sciona and the Body Shop to be offering a genetic testing service with no involvement from a GP.

'Fears unfounded'

The Human Genetics Commission (HGC), the government body which monitors developments in genetics, is currently considering notification from Sciona and is due to meet the firm in April.

HGC spokeswoman Charlotte Grant told BBC News Online: "The HGC needs to meet with Sciona to find out what they are offering and what are the ethical concerns that it needs to raise with ministers."

But Sciona's chief executive Chris Martin told BBC News Online: "The service we provide is trying to bridge the divide between academic research and the public."

He said it aimed to get people interested in their body, genetic make-up and healthy living.

Fears that genetic information would be sold and patented were unfounded, he said.

"We treat all information relating to an individual as owned by that individual and won't do anything to it unless they ask us to."

The Body Shop told BBC News Online: "The point of the Sciona's service, offered in our stores, is to promote healthy eating and lifestyle choices.

"None of the genes in this service are diagnostic of any specific disease."

See also:

08 Mar 02 | Health
Warning over health websites
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