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Fall 2021 Semester

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Kean Researchers Uncover Inconsistencies in COVID-19 Genetic Tests

Esther Choi and Maya Briskin

Kean genetic counseling graduate students Esther Choi, (l), and Maya Briskin, (r), were part of the research team.

Genetic tests aimed at determining a person’s risk of getting COVID-19 provide inconsistent results and aren’t based on established science, according to a new research study conducted by a team at Kean University.

Faculty and graduate students from Kean’s Genetic Counseling graduate program launched the study after seeing ads for the genetic testing pop up on social media.

The researchers submitted genetic data to five different direct-to-consumer tests and compared results. 

“Essentially, we learned there was really poor science, a lack of consistency in the different genes and variants the tests claimed to look at, and the risk information they presented was extremely variable and inconsistent,” said Assistant Professor Robert Pyatt, Ph.D., director of Kean’s COVID-19 lab, who led the study. “It raised red flags.”

Last month the researchers reported their findings to the National Society of Genetic Counseling, and they are now working to publish an article about the research in a scientific journal.

“This type of research directly applies to our daily lives and the health of our communities,” said Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D. “As Kean works to become the next great research institution in the State of New Jersey, this type of relevant and timely research will continue to be a priority.”

Jill M. Fischer, director of Kean’s Genetic Counseling graduate program, said the project helps graduate students understand how clinical research is conducted.

“This knowledge informs the clinical practice of the genetic counselor so that we can best serve our patients,” Fischer said. “Research also teaches students critical thinking, a crucial skill in the medical professions.” 

Pyatt first noticed companies marketing diagnostic tests on social media back in March. He said that while there is some early scientific evidence that genetics may play a role in COVID-19, the evidence is far from established enough for diagnostic testing. 

Consumers could pay for information that is unreliable and make decisions based on that information. “It’s like the days of snake oil salesmen,”  Pyatt said.

Graduate students Esther Choi, of Los Angeles, and Maya Briskin, of Holmdel, both in their second year of the program, joined the research team. The idea was presented to Kean’s Institutional Research Board, which must approve research involving human subjects or human data.

Following approval, the team obtained a publicly available genetic data set from the Harvard Personal Genome Project, and submitted it to five tests. 

By using one individual’s data, all tests should provide similar risk information, Pyatt said. Instead, some found a lower risk of COVID-19 and some higher. The tests looked at different genetic regions, or sections of genes, but Pyatt said they should have produced similar results.

Pyatt said the findings highlighted a lack of regulation over direct-to-consumer genetic tests. “It’s kind of the Wild West,” he said. 

The students said they welcomed the chance to critically evaluate the tests.

“In conducting this research, we hope to raise awareness about potential risks involved with pursuing genetic testing for susceptibility to SARS-cov-2 infection and severity of COVID-19 symptoms,” Choi said. “Our research shows the value of an analytical approach to assessing genetic testing and ensuring their results are science-based.”

Briskin noted that science is “not at the point where the genetic links cited by each test have been backed with sufficient research.

“We hope our findings help to elucidate this to the lay public,” Briskin said.