How will genetic technology shape personalized medicine?

Know Thyself...Genetically

If you could know what diseases you were likely to develop, would you want that information? This can be a tough question, especially when you consider that you might conduct your life differently if you thought you were likely to die young. On the other hand, knowing your risks may enable you to address problems before they arise, which can be life-saving. But how much can we rely on our genetic profile to tell us the true story of our health, when so much depends on things like diet, exercise, and lifestyle?

According to Dr. Howard L. McLeod of the Institute for Pharmacogenomics and Individualized Therapy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, these are important questions when you consider that most people don't know enough about molecular genetics to interpret such information. On the other hand, there is a lot to be gained from a person's genetic information, assuming that information is well-understood. In the future, this could happen with the help of some sort of counselor who would communicate the relevance of the genetic information.

The practical benefit of genetic technology for personalized medicine is that information in a person's genome may inform healthcare decisions, particularly the selection of certain drugs, says Dr. Geoffrey S. Ginsburg, Director of the Center for Personalized Medicine of the Duke University Health System.

"Healthcare providers can use genetic information to design medical plans that both maximize health benefits and minimize the risk of disease," he adds.

For instance, through genetic technology, researchers can identify which breast cancer patients will respond to certain drugs, sparing non-responders from the potentially severe side effects of an ineffective therapy [source: Scitable].

On the flip side, a potential hazard of using genetic technology in personalized medicine is that patients may receive incorrect information about their disease risks. Depending on the seriousness of the faulty data, this could cause significant distress for the recipient and, in some limited circumstances, raise issues of liability for those who provide the false information. According to Doriane Coleman, Professor of Law at Duke Law School, the potential for liability even if genetic reports are negligently produced depends on recipients being able to show that they'd been harmed in some way.

"Simply cutting back on cake in response to a false report that you're at risk for diabetes may not constitute an injury in the legal sense, but the emotional distress of wrongly thinking you're headed for an early grave could potentially open the door to legal action," explains Coleman." So far, there has not been any legal action in this area.

The question of whether to find out what our genes have to say is one that we all may face once genetic technology becomes more commonplace. In the next section, we take a look at where genetic technology is currently being used and what may come in the future.