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Me and My DNA


BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Me and My DNA is broadcast on Thursday 11th December at 20.30 GMT and repeated on Sunday 14th December at 21.30 GMT.

The rarefied science of DNA has - very recently - become available to all of us in our own homes.

A range of companies, particularly in the US, are offering to test for genetic risk factors for disease for just a few hundred pounds. The price is likely to plummet to the point where virtually anyone will be able to obtain a readout of part of their genetic code.

Ben Hammersley tries out this new service as he investigates the promise of personal genetic testing, the questions it raises about the future of medicine and what it says about the place of science in society.

Ben Hammersley
Presenter Ben Hammersley puts his own DNA to the test

For enthusiasts like Dr Leroy Hood , one of the key figures of the Human Genome Project, the technology is nothing less than the start of a revolution.

"I think these genome analyses are really the first step in a fundamental transformation in medicine where we move to a medicine that's much more predictive and personalised and eventually preventive," he says.

Yet critics of the tests say they provide very little useful information. Ben's results suggest he has twice the average risk of contracting stomach cancer. But since this is a low risk to start with, he now has double a low risk - which is back where he started.

"In almost no cases does your genetic code predetermine the diseases you will get," says John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at Manchester University. "Therefore I think these sorts of things should be treated with an extreme degree of caution."

Evan Harris MP
It's an extremely complex area and you need expertise and advice in order to know whether you want to have the test
Evan Harris MP

What's more, customers can take these tests with no genetic counselling, and the testing companies are currently virtually unregulated.

Meanwhile, the technology is raising awkward questions. It's not known how insurers will use this information once a moratorium runs out in 2014. There are concerns over privacy and who will have rights of access to genetic information in the future.

And there are fears that concerned patients will flood the NHS with demands for preventive treatment for their genetic predisposition to conditions like stomach cancer.

However, Ben hears of hopes that the data from these tests will contribute to the new field of pharmacogenetics.

The idea is that by taking one of these tests, your drug regime could be individually tailored to your own genetic makeup. One European study seems to show that matching the subjects' treatment to their genes will improve the efficacy of treatment for depression.

In the meanwhile, John Harris says that more and more individuals will try to find out more about what's in their genetic make-up - out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

"I think knowledge may be a burden and it may be a liberation, but it is our fate. We humans are curious creatures. We like knowledge, we like information, we like to find out things, particularly about ourselves."

Contributors to Me and My DNA

Dr Leroy Hood Institute for Systems Biology

Linda Avey co-founder 23andMe

Christine Patch lead genetic counsellor at Guy's Hospital

John Harris Professor of Bioethics, Manchester University

Dr Evan Harris Liberal Democrat MP

Stuart Hogarth Research Associate in Sociology, Loughborough University

Nigel Shadbolt Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Southampton University

Dr Ron Zimmern Director, Foundation for Genomics and Population Health

Coming up

This is the last in the current series of Analysis. We will be back on air on February 19th 2009.




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