Ravens fans to be offered DNA test kits Sunday in unusual NFL promotion

Gone are the days when sports team giveaways were limited to T-shirts, bobbleheads, free-sandwich coupons and the like.

The tens of thousands of fans entering M&T Bank Stadium for the Ravens’ home opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday will receive free DNA test kits.

It’s an approach stretching the usual giveaway model, and likely to generate fan buzz. The club calls it “one of the most innovative events a partner has ever spearheaded.”

It also contains some public-relations risk: The value of direct-to-consumer genetic testing is the subject of scientific debate, and some organizations say the mass collection of DNA samples raises privacy concerns.

“There’s nothing in this that I think is a good idea,” said Toni I. Pollin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “The tests they’re talking about doing are not going to be useful for a particular individual.”

Fans who choose to participate can learn about their genetic makeup, says Orig3n, the Boston-based biotech firm sponsoring the event. The procedure begins when a fan swabs the inside of their cheek, drops the sample into a stadium bin and registers with the company online.

The assessment offers “insight into your mind, body and health,” a company spokeswoman said.

Promotional material prepared for the event bears the logos of the company and the Ravens. It depicts a DNA strand with the message: “Purple and Black are in your genes — now find out what else is.”

Orig3n is offering — for free — a test of four genes. These include the ACTN3 gene, which the firm says can yield information on whether a person “is likely to have enhanced performance in power and sprint activities or is considered normal.”

Also being tested is a gene the company says can help predict an increased risk of low levels of Vitamin D.

The company offers more extensive tests for up to $149.

Critics warned that the promotion raises privacy concerns.

Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said there is risk in collecting mass samples that could be mislabeled, lost or stolen at a football stadium.

Bethesda-based attorney Bradley Shear said he has “serious concerns about the privacy, safety and security of the data being collected, and if fans understand the legal ramifications.”

Shear, a Ravens fan whose legal specialties are privacy, sports and technology, said a data breach could subject customers “to a major Trojan Horse. It could make you uninsurable for life insurance.”

The company said it uses “stringent security standards” to ensure that customers’ genetic information is protected. DNA swabs, it said, come directly to the lab “and the results go directly back to you. All of the DNA test results are encrypted back to the consumer via a smartphone app.”

Kate Blanchard, Orig3n’s chief operating officer and founder, said: “We believe every person who swabs or buys one of our products—their information should be theirs and their information should be private.”

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is an emerging — and controversial — industry.

One issue is how much — or little — can be derived from tests such as the free ones Orig3n is offering.

“Outside of rare single-gene genetic conditions, there is no single gene or targeted gene variants that can be tested to predict the health outcomes for any patient,” said Natalie Beck, genetic counselor at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins, in a statement.

“The crucial issue,” said Pollin, the Maryland professor, “is managing the public’s expectations about what the tests can and cannot do.”

Blanchard countered that “there will always be skeptics when any new technology comes to market, but it’s important to look at what is available to us now in the 21st century.” She called DNA “one of many important things you can know about yourself, no different than a scale to measure your weight or a cuff to measure your blood pressure.”

Neither the team nor the company indicated that Ravens players would be doing DNA testing.

“This is something that is more based to our fans,” said Kevin Rochlitz, the Ravens’ senior vice president of corporate sales and business development. “Some of our staff internally has been doing it.”

Orig3n, founded in 2014, also collects blood samples from events around the country, and uses the cells for regenerative medicine research.

Orig3n has a sponsorship with one other NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers. But the company and the Ravens said Sunday’s DNA test giveaway is new.

“One of our sales folks reached out to Orig3n and talked about them doing a deal here,” Rochlitz said.

M&T Bank Stadium seats about 71,000.

“Naturally, NFL football presents an incredible opportunity for any sponsor, let alone a company like Orig3n, who is still relatively young and still looking to establish their brand with consumers,” T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and Sonoma, Calif. “There aren’t too many places you can directly engage 70,000 people for a one-day event.”

This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Natalie Beck’s statement on gene testing.

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