Will Widespread Genome Sequencing Lead to a Medical Dystopia?
From GATTACA to Spider-Man, genetics has played a huge role in sci-fi, but it's only within the past few decades that we've really begun to understand it. Apart from the brain, DNA is probably the most complex (and important) part of the human body—it instructs our growth, development, and continued survival as human beings. Still, the question now is not whether we'll ever be able to unravel its secrets, but rather what we'll do once we have.
Currently, only a small number of doctors use genetic information to guide diagnostics and treatment, mostly because it's expensive and there are literally billions of possible defects to find within a genomic sequence. Complete sequences, where the entire genome is decoded, are rarely used. However, because of the possible long-term benefits of incorporating genetics into everyday healthcare, Jason Vassay, a primary care physician, and his Boston colleagues sequenced 50 complete genomes as part of a study that was the first of its kind.
They were shocked to find that, out of the 50 patients, 11 had genomic markers for rare, monogenic diseases. Vassay remarked, "If you look at the list of the conditions we found, most primary care physicians have never heard of them. It would would be crazy to think that 20 percent of people have a disease like that." In addition to this strange finding, almost none of the patients with these markers showed symptoms for the rare diseases.
This study set out to not only find such markers, but also explore how this type of genetic information could shape medical care. At least in this study, most of the doctors used the information correctly, and, as opposed to the control group, the sequenced patients followed up the study by taking better care of their health (exercise, diet, etc). Still, genomics experts like sci-fi writer Dan Koboldt are wary of incorporating genomics into healthcare, especially where gene editing (using technology like CRISPR) and eugenics are concerned.
For now, at $350 a pop, plus the cost of extra doctor visits, it's not an affordable or appealing option for most. But as more and more studies are done and technology advances, costs will likely drop. As costs drop and more people can have their genetic makeup incorporated into their care, our ability to tailor medical treatment in accordance with genes will improve. If managed carefully, it could be the beginning of a new age of preventative medicine...or the prologue to an age where genetic imperfections begin to carry stigma.