NOVA on PBS: Cracking Your Genetic Code

This past Wednesday PBS aired a wonderful program on genetics, “Cracking Your Genetic Code,” as part of its NOVA series. The program, which was produced in association with The Hastings Center, explores whether we are ready for “personalized, gene-based medicine.” The full video is available online.

By following a few medical cases and interviewing researchers from noted institutions including NIH, Dartmouth, and Harvard, as well geneticists working at genotyping labs, the show draws attention to the hopes and the concerns that mass genetic sequencing may bring.

The program explains that it took 13 years and cost $3 billion to successfully sequence the first human genome. Just three years ago, the genome could be mapped for $350K. But now, genotyping is open to mass consumption for under $1,000.

As more and more people elect for genotyping, the growing data set will help scientists identify causes of illness, leading to new treatments, but there may also be some negative repercussions on privacy and quality of life.

Some questions raised during the program:

  • Will health insurance companies gain access to this data and limit or deny coverage to people at risk for disease?
  • If you find out that you are at risk for a serious disease such as Alzheimer’s, will you live in fear, even if the risk is not that high? Information gleaned from genotyping is not hard fact, but probabilistic information that people may over-interpret.
  • If you find out that you’re actually quite healthy and at limited risk for any serious diseases, will that lead to riskier behavior, even though environmental factors remain a serious consideration in health?
  • Will genotyping lead to the creation of designer babies?
  • If a child’s genome reveals a risk for certain health issues, will that lead to stigmatization? For example, if girl is at risk for cardiovascular disease, will she be kept off the school soccer team?

Dana Alliance member Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston addresses a number of these questions in the show and in a 2008 PBS Q&A on personal DNA testing. (Side note: Dr. Tanzi’s musical accomplishments were recently featured in an article by the Dana Foundation—he played with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry!)

–Ann L. Whitman

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