Genetic testing has the potential to eliminate some unpleasant medical
At some point, each of us has been asked the question, “If you could
know when you were going to die, would you want to know?”
While this itself is impossible, genetic mapping has enabled people
worldwide to discover their predispositions to a variety of illnesses
and even predict their responses to specific prescription drugs.
Additionally, this relatively new service also serves as a way to
discover ancestral origins and trace one’s lineage.
A variety of companies such as the DNA analysis startup 23andMe have
inexpensively marketed this possibility.
In order to determine one’s susceptibility to diseases, the company
offers a SNP DNA test, which examines the most important one million
genome base pairs of the human body.
The process is completely noninvasive and simple as one just needs to
order a kit from a personal genome service, submit a saliva sample and
wait eight weeks for results.
DNA results are categorized into carrier status, disease risks, traits
and drug responses.
At its peak, 23andMe was able to test carrier status for 53
conditions, 122 disease risks, 60 specific traits and 25 drug
Those tested are given the percentage number of their specific risk
to each respective condition, in addition to the corresponding average
risk of the general population.
The results also include resources, which further explain the
scientific complexities of the diseases tested and the latest research
and treatments for such afflictions.
Although this is not a complete mapping of one’s personal genome, it
allows the test to remain affordable while revealing a substantial
amounts of genetic information.
While this is a seemingly ideal way to increase one’s health
awareness, 23andMe has recently been forced to suspend significant
portions of their operations due to sharp criticism from many health
agencies, especially the FDA who are concerned with the ethical
implications of this service.
Currently, 23andme is only legally permitted to offer ancestry results
as health results can only be delivered by licensed medical
professionals, despite their claim that its information is intended
for educational purposes, not diagnostic.
Furthermore, questions of accuracy and the emotional implications of
genetic mapping threaten its ability to achieve federal approval.
In public statements, the FDA insists that while the concept of
consumers having access to genome information is ideal, it is
imperative the companies prove beyond doubt that the tests are
accurate because a false positive or negative result could result in
unnecessary medical treatment or could delay care.
The emotional ramifications of testing are also of concern as an
increased chance of contracting an illness could send frantic people
demanding expensive and often painful treatments for fatal diseases
that they may never actually get.
Having a specific gene does not guarantee a specific health outcome.
While important, environmental factors and lifestyle habits also
influence one’s ability to contract illnesses and can even combat
DNA genetic testing is helpful, but limited as there are no real
certainties, just probabilities.
No test can firmly predict one’s future, although it can allow one to
make personal adjustments due to an increased chance of disease.
One who is at a high risk, but is asymptomatic, can instead make
simple changes in diet and lifestyle in order to both improve one’s
quality of life and even one’s ultimate lifespan.
Awareness of predisposition expands the time one has to take
preventative measures and vastly increases one’s ability to overcome
illness, if treatable, as early detection grants the patient the best
possible chance of survival.
Critics of genetic testing are also skeptical about the discriminatory
implications of results.
Although the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act legally
protects Americans against discrimination due to genetic information
in regards to health insurance and employment, it cannot prevent
unofficial bias due to sharing health risk statuses.
There have been few documented cases of this, but the proliferation of
these tests could potentially augment the likelihood of this happening
in the future, despite the illegality.
Despite the varying concerns of genetic testing as a whole, if 23andMe
is able to substantiate their claims of producing an accurate and
thorough DNA result, they will be able to sell their product again.
Even if the scientific legitimacy of this testing is adequately
addressed, emotional and ethical trepidations will remain valid.
Ultimately, deciding to partake in this type of testing is an
extremely difficult decision that can drastically alter one’s life
perception if the results are not ideal.
While ignorance may be bliss, knowledge of the existence of a
potential problem is the only way to proactively overcome it.
Beyond mere curiosity, these tests are exceedingly beneficial to those
with little to no knowledge of family history and those who come from
families with long histories of severe medical conditions.
Genetic testing has the potential to eliminate some medical surprises,
which often devastate families who are unprepared to cope with serious
As with any revolutionary technology, many serious disadvantages
exist, but the benefits of genetic testing far outweigh the drawbacks.
The conflict between 23andMe and the FDA will clearly be an ongoing battle.
However, the mere existence of this testing allows consumers to truly
determine if they would want to know their genetic predispositions
before the company is able to fully resume all operations.
Kathryn Kafka is a freshman English major from Walnut Creek, Calif.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org