Sequencing our health care

In my two and a half years at ASU, my favorite class so far has been BIO 302, “Cancer: Mother of all Diseases.” I vividly remember the professor telling us, “Once we cure cancer, we’ll lose all creativity.”

But take, for example, Lukas Wartman who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer he spent his career researching. ALL has an overall cure rate of about 40 percent. Luckily, Wartman had some researchers and doctors by his side.

Researchers took his cancer cells and sequenced its genome, then compared it to his healthy cells’ genome. With that information, doctors were able to pinpoint the abnormalities that caused the cancer. Doctors were able to diagnose the proper drug to put his cancer into remission.

This is only one example of the benefits of personalized medicine. Genetic tests are becoming more and more available to the public. For example, the biotechnology company, 23 and Me, offers basic DNA testing to reveal which inherited diseases you may have, or what your risk for diseases is. There are a total of 244 diseases that 23 and Me tests for, including Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, obesity and even alcohol dependence.

The test is simple. You pay for a test kit, swipe your cheek with a swab and send it back to the lab. Once you get the results, you can then take the proper preventative measures to decrease your risk factors.

For example, if you find that you have mutations in your BRCA I and BRCA II genes, perhaps you would increase yearly mammogram visits, or even contemplate a mastectomy. While a double mastectomy is definitely a radical procedure, it could be worthwhile; those who have both mutations are at an 80 percent risk at developing breast cancer.

Or, perhaps you learn you’re at risk for obesity. You might think a bit more about running and maintaining a healthy diet, a simple lifestyle choice that could add years to your life.

Maybe you tested positive for “nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.” Perhaps you would rethink you choice to drink less, and kindly elect yourself as designated driver more often.

There are hundreds of these possibilities — all hidden in your genome — that you have yet to understand, or even think about. Numerous diseases and risk factors that range from trivial to life-threatening.

While 23 and Me is in it’s infancy, the ideas and concepts are there. Many have yet to jump aboard the ship based on privacy concerns. Questions such as, “Who gets access to the information?” and “Should insurance companies have access and judge these risk factors as pre-existing conditions?” worry some citizens.

Let’s not start judging people based on their genome. Let’s encourage one another to understand ourselves a bit better. Let us learn how to improve and change certain aspects of our life to, possibly, increase the time we have together.

I’m guessing we still have to be pretty creative with the ways we want to cure diseases. But I’m hoping that one day our creativity will pay off, and we’ll be able to relax and look back on our achievements.

 

Reach the columnist at OBrunaci@asu.edu or follow her at @OBrunacini

 

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