Body 2.0: Changing the Nature of Genetic Data

The next generation of parents is set to embrace genetic testing of kids for diseases that may occur later in life, according to a study published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. This is big news given that many medical professionals oppose the practice and there is a movement in Congress to secure genetic privacy. This raises a key question: What is the nature of genetic data?

The study’s author, Angela Bradbury, M.D., mentioned a generational component to understanding how society interacts with genetic data.

“The next generation may be more comfortable with genetic testing,” she said. “This could be because their generation grew up with genetics, learning about it in school or from the news, unlike their parents.”

Rocking the Tech World
Perhaps the generational argument can help explain things. After all, the younger generation is also much more willing to post information about themselves online in places like MySpace and Facebook . However, older people read the news as well, and it is no secret that genetic testing and manipulation have many potential health benefits.

Indeed, the idea of genetic testing is rocking the tech world where companies like 23andMe, Navigenics and deCODE Genetics are helping individuals figure out what diseases they are predisposed toward. There is even an X Prize for the first team that can sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. These initiatives are just the beginning of personalized medicine, a true revolution in health tech.

Current power brokers generally look askance at revolutions, which may explain why some leaders from the medical profession oppose widespread testing, but that doesn’t account for the apparent hesitation on the part of older parents. It could be that when it comes to genetic technologies, older people are more focused on the social ramifications, an area where they certainly have more experience.

Healthcare Discrimination
One worry in using genetic tests is possible discrimination for healthcare coverage or employment. This has led to the introduction of a bill known as the “Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act” (GINA), currently stalled in Congress.

“No individual should have to choose between the benefits of genetic testing and keeping a job or health insurance,” says Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

If one views genetics as unchangeable, like race is today, then the attempt to ban discrimination on the basis of it makes sense. To understand this better, turn the equation around.

Imagine if one’s race could be kept secret. Suddenly, it would cease to be an issue, as no one would know who was black, white or otherwise. Yet, science seems to be pointing out that, in the future, genetic data is less likely to be like race and more likely to be like software, albeit much harder to crack.

Short-Term Worries
Scientists have already sequenced the human genome, which is like a source code for humans. Now that scientists have it, it is possible to re-engineer subjects through gene and other therapies not only to repair damage, but also extend life and enhance the body. Gene therapy could one day help cure diseases like cancer and diabetes and it’s been estimated that by 2011, the market for gene therapy products will be US $6.5 billion. However, the possible changes to the human body don’t end with disease.

Researchers have also been able to reduce fat, pump up muscle and change the color of mice through gene manipulation. Although gene therapy is not yet considered safe for humans, it is only a matter of time before better techniques arrive that make it possible on a large scale. Biotechnology is moving very fast these days, creating reason for optimism.

Worries that gene testing could create more problems than it solves are reasonable in the short term. Over the long run, however, gene testing and therapy will likely be viewed as “equalizing technologies” just like the Internet or cheap laptops. Body 2.0 is on its way and the nature of genetic data is about to change.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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