DNA: The Era of Decoding Ourselves

Genetic screening could help to predict which disease we are most susceptible to, whether our kids are at risk too and what medical treatment is best for us. However, with this advanced knowledge about DNA, an important question comes… Are we ready?

If someone gives us an envelope with the number which says how old we would be when we die, should we open it? How many of us would like to know how much time we have left? Even though this is pure fantasy, I bet that the majority of people would have kept their envelopes sealed up tight.

Now, we can be much more precise in our forecasts. We can find out, at the cost of little more than a few ounces of blood, whether we carry the genes that place us or our children at risk of cancer or diabetes. But how many of us really want to know? In 2003 – only 50 years after the discovery of the DNA structure – humankind had developed and exploited the technology, the computing capability and the financial and social impetus to record one whole human DNA sequence: some 3 billion letters of genetic code. Now it is possible for a person to ask a doctor for genetic testing if there are any concerns about one’s health. These tests can confirm or rule out a suspected genetic condition or help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. But are we fully aware of the benefits and limitations of a DNA test, and the possible consequences of its results?

Genetic testing has potential benefits whether the results are positive or negative for a gene mutation. The information coming from these tests can help a person make informed decisions about managing one’s health care, directed towards available prevention and/or treatment options. We all know about the case of Angelina Jolie who had a double mastectomy and her ovaries removed, because she discovered to be a carrier of abnormal mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These are human genes that produce tumour suppressor proteins which help repair damaged DNA and are key players in the maintenance of the cell’s genetic material. Together, with her family history of breast cancer, Angelina decided for this radical step. But, would she have done it if it was not because of the DNA test results?

It is not clear exactly what one should do once they receive the results of their genetic screening. For many of the diseases, there is still no effective way to prevent and/or cure them. Even though, the results do not give a 100% chance that one will develop, for example breast cancer or Parkinson’s, many people with a faulty gene/s will assume that they will. For some, this sort of information can be too difficult emotionally to handle and can lead to anxiety, depression, or in some cases social isolation. So…is it not better to not know?

There is no doubt that we are witnessing the dawn of a revolution in personalised medicine. In a few years, doctors will be able to create ‘virtual twins’ for each one of us using our genetic information and computer models. Our virtual twins will be our most up-to-date version of ourselves in medical terms and becoming, effectively, digital patients in hospitals. But are we prepared for this medical revolution both socially and emotionally?

About the author:

Anna Gaca - Getty ScienceAnna Graca is a PhD candidate in Clinical Neuroscience at University College London. Her research focuses on the assessment and modulation of the changes in different murine models of retinal degeneration to improve existing gene and/ or cell replacement therapy. Outside her lab, Anna is involved in several science communication projects such as the ‘Pint of Science’ festival where she is a manager of the ‘Tech Me Out’ theme. When she is not doing or talking science, she can be found on court playing volleyball or outdoors on a hiking trail.

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