HOUSTON – If you walked past the 16th floor lab at Baylor College of Medicine, the work going on there could almost go unnoticed.
However, the results being produced there could soon echo loud and clear worldwide, allowing all of us to make life-saving choices about our future.
“It took us 13 years to sequence the first human genome. At great expense... it cost $3 billion,” Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor, said. “And now...in a clinical laboratory, we can do the same test for a few thousand.”
Gibbs leads a team of researchers, who can take a tiny blood sample and printout your genome, your body’s “blueprint.”
There computers let them to read that road map, which allows them to see an abnormality that might cause a disease. And if they can identify it, it gives you a chance to not only treat it, but beat it.
“We’ll in a positive way; I think we’re going to have better medicine and better understanding of human health. And better ability, frankly, to improve the quality of human life,” Gibbs said.
And some believe that information will give doctors a better chance of extending life.
But while this new access to our body’s inner workings holds tremendous promise, Baylor researchers also realize abuse could lead us down a perilous path.
“I think a lot of the concerns have to do with not what’s being done from a scientific perspective, but rather how people will use this information and potentially, misuse this information,” Dr. Amy McGuire,director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, said.
For instance, if your genome readout showed a possibility of a future heart attack or mental illness and your insurance company or employer could access that information— suddenly, we’re raising legal concerns about privacy, confidentiality and genetic discrimination.
“They’ll know more about you then you know about you, so I think it’s a serious threat,” Professor Gerald Treece, KHOU 11’s legal analyst, said.
It could potentially lead to a serious dilemma for parents searching for the perfect child – using the lab to modifying a baby’s eye or hair color, even personality traits before they’re born.
“I think then we start to ask questions... about socially…should we be doing this?” McGuire said.
With greater advances in genetic research, the Consumer Electronics Show could take on a whole different feel as engineer and entrepreneur Richard Resnick explained to an audience in Boston.
“Consumer applications for genomics will flourish. You want to see if you’re genetically compatible with your girlfriend...DNA sequencing for your iPhone… sure… there’s an app for that,” Resnick said.
You laugh, but what if politicians chose to use this new research, releasing their financial records and their genome sequencing.
“You think that’s not going to happen...? Do you think that would have helped John McCain?” Resnick said.
What if people knew Ronald Reagan had a chance of developing Alzheimer’s? Could that information have changed the course of American history?
Genome research is certainly producing potentially lifesaving answers, while at the same time raising some very difficult questions.