Friday, October 11, 2013

An Evening of Auctions and Genome Sequencing

About a week ago, on October 2nd, I attended Rockefeller University' Celebrating Science fall benefit, an annual event put on to support Rockefeller's Parents & Science Initiative. About 350 people attended, and they raised around $1.1 million, but the best part of the evening, at least for me, was the pre-dinner lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Friedman. Dr. Friedman is a Rockefeller M.D./Ph.D. who helped discover leptin, a hormone that helps regulate weight in both humans and animals. This discovery has affected obesity treatment dramatically: Dr. Friedman showed the audience a photo of a boy with a leptin irregularity -- a deficiency, as I recall -- and then showed a photo of the boy taken a few years later, after he had received leptin-based treatment. The difference was profound. The boy's weight had decreased enormously, almost incredibly. This kind of treatment, though, only helps those people whose obesity is caused by genetic mutations. Nevertheless, the visual impact was stunning.

The main message of the lecture, though, was how the rapidly decreasing cost of genome sequencing was going to, very soon, revolutionize medicine. "The cost of sequencing your DNA is falling faster than Moore's Law," Friedman asserted. "Soon, everyone will have their genome sequenced. It will be a different world."

Sequencing one's genome will let physicians more precisely tailor treatment to a person's particular medical condition. "People have diabetes for different reasons," Dr. Friedman claimed, and knowing why, exactly, a particular person has a particular disease will mean better medical care.

Having your genome sequenced will also let doctors know if you have an intolerance for certain kinds of medicine. Some people, for instance, have almost fatal reactions to chemotherapy. If a doctor knew that his cancer patient had the genes that caused this reaction, she could alter the treatment accordingly.

Of course, cheap and easy genome sequencing raises serious bioethical issues. What would you do, for instance, if you learned that your child had an untreatable genetic disease? In addition, how much of this information should be available to insurance companies? You might think that genome sequencing results should always be private, but there could be exceptions. One genetic condition known as Long QT Syndrome can cause the heart to race and leads to an increased risk of sudden fainting. If someone with this condition drive a school bus or flew a commercial plane, shouldn't someone be made aware? Don't other people have the right to know? There are, seemingly, no easy answers.

[The image shown here should be credited to the Billy Farrell Agency.]

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