Whenever I think of genetic testing, I’m always brought back to my middle school and high school days. A showing of the 1997 movie, Gattaca, nearly always followed up our class discussion of DNA. In the world of Gattaca, society is driven by the eugenics system. Potential children are selected through preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Through this, parents have the freedom to create life with the best hereditary traits of their parents. While conception today isn’t typically ruled by the pick-and-choose genetic practices exhibited in Gattaca, could we be moving one step closer?
A recent press release on PR Newswire announced a new national study published today in the May issue of Pediatrics. This study is lead-authored by Kenneth P. Tercyak, Ph.D., an associate professor of oncology and pediatrics at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is a part of Georgetown University Medical Center. It is part of a larger effort by the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health to examine how the public uses genetic testing. The study found that parents who were offered genetic testing to predict their risks of common, adult-onset health conditions, they would also be accepting of testing their children.
In the study, 219 parents were offered genetic testing for their susceptibility to eight common, adult-onset health conditions ranging from various cancers to high cholesterol. Parents were also asked how they felt about the risks versus the benefits of predictive genetic testing for their children and how interested they were in testing their child, if the service were made available. Though no children were tested in the study, PR Newswire notes that the group of respondents who were the most interested in testing themselves were interested in testing their children as well.
Moreover, there was not very much distinction between the risks and benefits they perceived for themselves and the risks and benefits they perceived for their children. Respondents reportedly believed that the information could possibly contribute to improved health maintenance, disease prevention, and other benefits for their children.
At the present time, personal genetic tests are readily available at drug stores and over the Internet. However, these tests are generally marketed to adults for their own use. The tests have been criticized for potential misinterpretation and their advertising practices. Additionally, numerous professional organizations have advised against childhood genetic testing because the information has not yet been shown to reduce disease or death through early intervention.
Despite these criticisms, genetic testing for children could be the next target, according to Tercyak. He states, “These tests usually don’t offer a clean bill of health and can be hard to interpret even in the best scenario. They identify incremental risks for many common diseases. Most people carry some risk based on a combination of their family history, genetics, and lifestyle. A child’s unexpected health results could trigger negative reactions among parents and children, and lead to conversations at the pediatricians office that providers aren’t prepared to have.”
While the feelings towards childhood genetic testing are mixed and while it is certainly leaps from the extremes evident in Gattaca, it may very well become a reality at improving health in our future. As Tercyak is noted saying in the PR Newswire press release, “genetic testing for common disease risk could usher in a new era of personalized medicine.”