January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Kevin Ahern

I read the news this week, oh boy. The biggest headline came from use of “gene sweeps” that resulted in identifying several genes that may be involved in type 2 diabetes. At least one of them may also play a role in prostate cancer. Gene sweeping allows genome-wide comparison between healthy and unhealthy individuals of single nucleotide polymorphism sequences (also known as SNPs) at a rate up to 500,000 in about a half hour. Gulp. SNPs found by this analysis may flag culprit genes in sick individuals (or not, as the case may be). This is all very exciting from a technological standpoint, but one must reasonably ask if our ability to collect information is leapfrogging any reasonable way of dealing with the “knowledge” generated. For example, we have no idea whatsoever the impact that the overwhelming majority of SNPs have. Many of them probably exert no effects at all, but imagine being a physician telling that to a hypochondriac patient whose SNP analysis flags a critical gene. Imagine further telling him/her that we don’t know the effects that any given SNP will have for certain. Can you see problems? As the list of genes “implicated” in diseases grows (over 100 variants for 40 diseases are currently identified with many more on the way) and make their way into genetic tests that potential parents and health practitioners rely on for making “informed” decisions, look for trouble on the patient side of the equation.


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