GeneWatch PR: A sales pitch not science - Oxford University attacked for marketing of misleading 'nicotine addiction' gene test

For immediate release: Tues 4 Jan 2005

GeneWatch UK today called for Oxford University to withdraw its funding and support for a genetic test claimed to be related to nicotine addiction. The new test, NicoTest, was launched on 2nd December by g-Nostics Ltd, a ?spin out? company from Oxford University (1). Oxford University is one of g-Nostics? shareholders and g-Nostics says its claims are based on research by the university?s scientists (2).

In a new briefing, reported by the Observer newspaper (3), GeneWatch reveals:

  • The claimed link between the gene and nicotine addiction does not meet the usual standards of scientific evidence (it is not statistically significant).
  • There is a conflict of interest between g-Nostic?s scientific officer?s role in promoting a commercial product and at the same time providing and interpreting the evidence given to its customers whilst emphasising his link to Oxford University (4).
  • The website promoting the test gives seriously misleading figures for both the usefulness of treatment and the value of the test in deciding who should get which treatment.
  • The NicoTest website ignores scientific evidence that the test is unlikely to be useful for men.
  • The website fails to give customers other information that might make them think twice before they take the test.

GeneWatch warns that using the NicoTest could mislead smokers and potentially harm health: it recommends that people do not take the test.

"People thinking about buying this genetic test should know that they are reading a misleading sales pitch not scientific evidence", said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "Oxford University is tarnishing its name by failing to keep its research and its commercial spin-offs separate. Are they snake-oil merchants or a university?"

In addition to advising people not to take the test, GeneWatch has written to g-Nostics Ltd, Oxford University and the Human Genetics Commission, seeking the withdrawal of the NicoTest and has made a complaint to the Trading Standards office (5). GeneWatch believes that an independent regulator should be set up to assess all genetic tests before they are marketed. Genetic tests should also not be sold directly to the public, but only via medical professionals who can ensure that they are properly interpreted.

"Unless the Government acts swiftly to regulate genetic tests, there will be more disreputable claims, which risk misleading people and may harm their health," said Dr Wallace. "Without regulation, the Human Genome Project is in danger of becoming a massive marketing scam. The people assessing health claims for genetic tests should not be the same people that are profiting from selling them".

Some genetic tests are useful for certain individuals and are already available in the NHS, but others are based on weak or contradictory evidence. Proper regulation would mean the claimed link between the gene and the disease, behaviour or drug response would be independently assessed - as would its usefulness in deciding who should get which health advice or treatment (6).

Under the Government's ten year science and innovation framework, universities are increasingly encouraged to make links with businesses and commercialise discoveries, as part of the 'knowledge-based economy' (7). But most studies linking genes to common diseases or behaviour (such as addiction) later turn out to be wrong. Conflicts of interest can arise if further scientific research does not back the original marketing plan or patent claim and the confidence of the public in the independence of university scientists will be eroded.

"Who is selling knowledge and who is selling spin?" said Dr Wallace. "With science up for sale it is becomes impossible to tell what is evidence and what is marketing."

For further information please contact:

Dr Helen Wallace on 01298-871898 (office) or 07903-311584 (mobile).

Notes to editors:

  1. The website for NicoTest is: .
    The website for the company is: .
    The test launch was widely reported, for example: .
  2. The links between the company and Oxford University are reported on: .
    The university is also listed as a shareholder on the company?s website:
  3. GeneWatch's briefing 'Three reasons not to buy the NicoTest genetic test' is available on:
    The Observer article is available on:,6903,1382068,00.html
  4. Dr Robert Walton is Chief Scientific Officer, Lead Inventor and co-founder of g-Nostics: . He is a co-author of many of the scientific papers relating to the test, based on research conducted when he was head of the General Practice Research Group at the Department of Clinical Pharmacology, University of Oxford. These papers have been quoted selectively on the company?s website, omitting evidence that does not back the company's claims.
  5. Letters available on request.
  6. More information on other companies selling genetic tests is available in GeneWatch's briefing 'Genetic tests and health: the case for regulation', on: .
  7. HM Treasury, DTI and DfES (2004). Science & innovation investment framework 2004-2014.

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