Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thrashing Around in the Deep End of the Gene Pool

Jane Brody chose her words carefully:

The deciphering of the human genome has prompted a number of entrepreneurs to cash in on people’s genetic concerns. They offer DNA testing to look for aberrant genes associated with the risk of developing various diseases, especially cancer... some professional genetics counselors say this approach to determining cancer risk is fraught with hazards, not the least of which is a false warning of a serious risk that does not exist. (NYT, 5-28-08)
Coincidentally I’ve been reading “Blood Matters" by Masha Gessen. A review of this investigation/memoir in the International Herald Tribune said: “Our culture doesn't yet have the infrastructure - educational, medical, moral, the whole shebang - to handle the consequences of the recent revolution in genetic testing. But we’ll need it…”

Indeed, we need it now. Science has sprinted ahead of the evolution of social mores. Much is at stake: the “genetic concerns” about which Brody speaks are fundamental. If only we could know how long and how well we may live! Who can forecast what legacy we leave to our children? You can't blame people for mailing cell samples accompanied by big checks in an attempt to know or perhaps even wrest control of these variables.

But the "what next?" problem suffuses the issue. On the season finale of the television drama "House," a young doctor has been nagged into testing herself for the mutation that causes Huntington's disease. This highly dramatic device will serve the TV story very well -- I predict future scripts containing denial, deception and behavior that deviates from the norm. What we won't see is anything that will truly shed light on the emotional upheaval that can result from genetic testing. In real life individuals have differing tolerance for bad news about which they can do nothing. How does one incorporate the abrupt knowledge of an impending unhappy ending to a previously satisfactory life?

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