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Gattaca… is it now a reality? April 30, 2010

Posted by Jill in Biology, Genetics, Health, Medicine, Policy.
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Lego DNA helix

For anyone who has seen the movie Gattaca, the concept is mind-boggling. Could molecular genetics really go as far as artificially selecting for so traits as specific as having an innate ability to speak or play the piano or be a world-class swimmer, not just choosing for a tall blond-blue eyed baby? In the movie Gattaca, Vincent is one of the last “natural” babies born into this genetically-enhanced world, where life expectancy and disease likelihood are determined at birth. Myopic and scheduled to die at 30, he has no chance of pursuing a career in a society that now discriminates against your genes, rather gender, race or religion. He assumes the identity of Jerome, a world-class swimmer who was crippled in an accident, in order to achieve prominence in the Gattaca Corporation, a spaceflight company, where he is chosen for his lifelong dream of being on a manned mission to Saturn.

Although this movie is fiction and was produced in 1997, how far away from this society are we really? The Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed a healthy person’s DNA in an attempt to predict the long-term diseases or medical conditions he would face in the years to come. The genome was of Stephen Quake, who is the Lee Otterson Professor of Bioengineering. The thought is that along with a family medical history, patients could potentially have a genetic component to their medical history that would help physicians in determining whether or not certain medications will work or have adverse side effects for that patient based on their genetic makeup. Patients that are at a potentially higher risk for a certain condition or disease will be able to have closer monitoring of that condition through testing or observation even if not present in the patient. Another benefit to this form of “pre-screening” of genetic disorders is that it will be more cost effective and be more economically sound because it will reduce the prevalence of unnecessary tests, making medicine more efficient.

In conjunction with bioinformaticians, Atul Butte, MD, PhD, assistant professor in bioinformatics, and his lab members have already done a lot of the necessary leg work for interpreting the genetic code into something meaningful, like what individual codons or even base pairs mean in a particular part of the genome. They spent 18 months cataloguing publications that associated particular genetic changes called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) with effects on specific diseases. It was the first time anyone had compiled all the information in one database.

Upon receiving the genome of Steve Quake, researchers were able to create an algorithm that analyzed all of the data they had compiled from previous studies against Quake’s genome to determine his risk factors for certain conditions such as obesity, Alzheimer’s, type-2 diabetes, and prostate cancer. They determined Quake’s risk of prostate cancer is about 23 percent, risk for Alzheimer’s diesease is 1.4 percent due to protection, and type-2 diabetes, coronnary artery disease, and obesity all at 50 percent. This information raises questions of patients actually knowing these alarming statistics because they are afraid of living their everyday lives. I’m sure this is similar to the idea of life insurance companies providing you the statistics for the likelihood that you will die if you walk across the street to your daily job. Most people do not want to know these things and if the problem arises, they will deal with it then instead of relying on knowing odds to predict what could potentially happen to them.

This new scientific research raises many ethical questions like should this be implemented to aid patients or should it be optional or is this an exploitation of personal information? As more of these findings are published, there will certainly be more controversial discussion in terms of what is right and wrong in exploring the meaning of our genomic fate.

The whole article can be found here.

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