Thursday, December 13, 2007

Relaxed-fit genes

A pair of articles appeared in today's WSJ. The first: The Informed Reader (B5) scoops Dec. 12 NPR (National Public Radio) on the ethics of using DNA as evidence at a crime scene. The second: questions by Gautam Naik (D1) about genetic testing. This pair, coincidentally, comes as I gear up for spring semester, when I will be taking biomedical ethics and a genetics class. Ah, biology!

The Informed Reader:
  • "In one prominent case, Seattle police connected John Athan to a rape and murder committed more than 20 years ago through saliva left on an envelope. A majority of justices on the Washington-state Supreme Court ruled that the collection method, which involved a ruse set up by police, was acceptable, though the dissenting minority noted that DNA contains "the most intimate details" about a person." Yes, it does. That's why it makes sense to some people that using DNA would be equivalent to identity theft.
  • "A distinction needs to be drawn, [critics] say, between cross-matching DNA with samples in a criminal database, and more invasive steps such as using recovered DNA to establish family connections or medical problems." Good point. See the next article in this post for more on the medical-problems part.
  • "DNA-technology consultant Chris Asplen, a former director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, created by the Justice Department, says using familial DNA matches doesn't violate privacy any more than connecting people through their last name." Then again, given the commonness of such surnames as Smith, Patel (in India[?], at least), etc., using DNA would be a much more precise way to match people.
Health Journal:
  • Warning:"Many of the claims that accompany [genetic] tests are not fully supported by science." That happens when money-making tries to mix with medicine, no?
  • Case in point: "Some companies test for traits such as a "sweet tooth gene," and then sell tailored supplements to hasten weight loss." Just remember that nurture, not just nature, has a large part in this and other traits.
  • Naik explains the complicating part: "For instance, some of the most popular tests claim to identify a person's risk of getting a common ailment such as heart disease or diabetes. The roots of these conditions often lie in multiple genes [nature], many of which scientists think haven't even been discovered yet. Lifestyle factors [nurture!] -- such as diet and exercise -- can have an impact on risk, too. A person may also carry several other genes whose workings counteract the ill-effects of the gene being tested for."
  • Quoth Stuart Hogarth, a fellow at the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham, England: "Commercialization of genetics tests at this stage is premature." You bet it's premature! Maybe in a few years...
So just leave your genes alone for now. If your bloodline has survived for a couple hundred generations, it should have little problem with a few more.

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