Residents concerned about DNA-for-cash transactions in Louisville

Updated: Apr. 6, 2019 at 5:18 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - People are giving DNA samples to a guy in a white van for $20.

It’s been happening in some of Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods. However, the offer is only available to Passport customers.

Some told WAVE 3 News that something didn’t feel right after they gave their DNA.

The people taking and paying for those samples have been showing up in areas of west Louisville like Portland and Russell, and even homeless camps around Kentucky. They ask participants to swab the inside of their cheeks. Some people who participated said they were told it was a test for cancer.

“When you do your homework on it, you come to a dead end,” said David, a man who gave his DNA after the car came to his street for at least two days in a row.

Employees operating from a white, unmarked van have been setting up shop in minority neighborhoods across Louisville for more than a month. They return day after day, handing out cash in exchange for DNA samples from Passport Health customers like Martha Mask.

“They said, ‘Swab 10 times on each side,’” Mask said. “At the time, I was at my downlow and I needed that change.”

Mask was given $20 and told that sample will be used to screen for cancer. However, she told WAVE 3 News something didn’t feel right.

“The people told me they had contracts with Passport,” Mask said. “Well, they didn’t have any passport papers or nothing on the table.”

WAVE 3 News reporter Phylicia Ashley contacted Passport representative Ben Adkins, who said Passport is not related to the group. Passport Health warned customers about engaging with them.

“Where are you coming from? What organization are you with?” David asked the men at the table. “None of these questions are answered.”

In March, the group identified itself to Ashley as employees from Freedom Health. WAVE 3 News called the number the group gave David, at the van’s last spotting over the weekend on 34th and Broadway. There was no answer.

“Another example of businesses taking advantage of people who are less fortunate,” District 4 Rep. Barbara Sexton Smith told WAVE 3 News.

A local health official called Smith to express concern about the operation.

“They’re taking DNA, then you disappear, and we can’t find you ... something is wrong with that,” Smith said.

University of Louisville Analytical Chemistry Professor Dr. Aleeta Powe said swabs can only check for genes that may be connected to certain cancers.

“At the moment, you can’t test for cancer using mouth swabs, but there are tests in development,” Powe said.

WAVE 3 News is still working to find out exactly why the group is paying people for their DNA.

Copyright 2019 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.