BY ALBERT SCERBO, HG 2014
In the 1997 film GATTACA, Ethan Hawke lives in a futuristic world where genetic testing and editing allows parents to ensure that their children will be born without the risk of serious hereditary genetic disorders. Nervous parents are able to secure a future where their children are not at risk for heart disease and can even ensure that their children might grow up to be Olympic champions.
In March, NHS’s Boston chapter hosted a talk by Dr. Robert C. Green, Director of the G2P program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who suggested that not only is this sci-fi world possible, it’s actually already here. The Genomes to People program (G2P) – a joint initiative between Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical University and Partners Healthcare – conducts research around the medical, behavioral and economic outcomes associated with the implementation of genomic medicine.
He’s hopeful about the benefits it can provide: doctors are better informed about what medications may cause an allergic reaction in a patient; genetic sequencing can predict hereditary diseases like early onset Alzheimer’s; and a number of biotech firms have already shown incredibly promising results in cancer treatment for people with certain genetic markers.
But like any technology, it’s important not to view these advances in genetic technology with rose-colored glasses. Despite the benefits, Dr. Green noted real difficulties that come with knowing with such certainty. He’s seen an aversion to such technology from many new parents. Some found it easier to approve of the program in the abstract rather than applied to their bouncing bundle of joy.
Then, still there are questions of how this might affect the business and policy world. If a test can say with precision what the likelihood of diabetes is, how can you possibly qualify for a low-risk pool for health insurance if that percentage is high? What percentage means you’re not qualified for health insurance at all? It’s for this reason that Dr. Green is a board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, which facilitates and researches the impact that genetic medicine might have.
It will take some time to navigate the complex ethical questions genetic medicine raises and how they balance with the very tangible miracles it can create. But the takeaway of the evening is that it’s not a question of should we have the conversation – good or bad, the box is already opened and translational genomics is here to stay.