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The Future of Genetic Testing: Telling Science Fact from Science Fiction

By the early 2000s, computers and other technology had advanced to the point where large collections of a person’s genes could be looked at, a method called genetic profiling. In the future, some technology companies may be able to offer genetic testing to map your whole genome—all the genes in your body at once! That sounds like a dream come true for preventing disease, but the reality is that researchers haven’t yet learned enough to help predict your health.

“The marketing for some testing may be premature,” Dr. Wilfond warns. “We know so little about some of these genes, and they may be small contributors to actual disease. There is a danger of misunderstanding or misinterpreting the results. These tests are giving you just small amounts of information.”

Wilfond advises people to think carefully about offers for testing. “Ask yourself a couple of questions before you decide,” he says. “Is this test part of routine medical care that will help me, or is this test something that’s only going to make somebody a lot of money?”

In the meantime, researchers are learning more about genetics and disease every day. “We now understand how to look at a person’s genes for their risks of more common diseases such as heart disease, asthma and Parkinson’s disease,” Wilfond points out. As scientists learn more about how environmental factors affect genes and how illnesses develop, more types of genetic testing will become part of routine health care.

Television and movies—and even some marketing—often make the science fiction of genetic testing seem like science fact. It’s true that health researchers are always looking far ahead to a day in science future. Part of the challenge of genetic testing is figuring out what to tell people until that day comes.

“There is a process for accepting new things in medicine that happens to be gradual and that’s good,” Wilfond observes, “because as we wait longer, we learn more.”

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