The Wise Man Knows His Genetic Destiny A simple new DNA test uncovers illness in your future--and gives you time to do something about it.
(Business 2.0) – You can't help feeling uncertain. As sure as the sun rises, alarmist morning headlines report illness and disease. Then you breathe that hazy metro air, work to exhaustion, and hear that a friend just had a heart attack. Could you be next? ¶ If you are, you can at least now be forewarned--and take steps to prevent such a catastrophe--thanks to the first true consumer application to arise from the completed Human Genome Project. While plenty of research remains for gene scientists, there is already a way to find signs of danger in your DNA.
Learning your genetic secrets is easy: Swish some mouthwash around your gums, spit it into a test tube, and ship the sample overnight to the Great Smokies Diagnostic Lab in Asheville, N.C. The lab's year-old predictive genomics test, called Genovations (www.genovations. com), analyzes the DNA taken from your mouth to reveal risk for several diseases. More specifically, the test looks for certain single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)--small, unique deviations in your DNA. "Think of SNPs as typos--pieces of the genetic code that have been changed," says Patrick Hanaway, chief medical officer at GSDL. "Such variations lead to changes in the way your body works."
Three weeks after you send in the test, the company mails back a 40-page report that details your predispositions to heart disease, osteoporosis, or immune-system maladies (such as asthma). Not that you'll be the one doing the reading. Predictive genomics tests have received bad press, but accuracy hasn't been the problem. The issue has been participants freaking out after interpreting their own data or receiving poorly communicated advice. Some people thought they were getting death sentences. So GSDL only sends its patients to physicians trained to explain the information.
"We're still figuring out how best to translate genetic testing. The results are complicated to interpret," admits Joann Boughman, the executive vice president of the American Society of Human Geneticists. "But with proper counseling, those results often help people."
A physician takes the Genovations report and recommends changes to a patient's diet, lifestyle, or environment. Prescriptions get specific: For instance, estrogen therapy might be advised for one woman, herbs for a second, and eliminating caffeine for a third, all in the name of preserving calcium. In some cases, a subject showing predisposition to high blood pressure will be cleared to season his food with impunity, while another will be told to go on a low-salt diet. The difference maker is a SNP that, when present, indicates the subject's kidneys absorb too much sodium.
Genovations is a leader in the field of predictive genomics--several smaller competitors provide less information--and indeed, the $2,000 tests have provided epiphanies for subjects who thought they were healthy. One 37-year-old male, deficient in vitamin B, discovered that he was on a potential collision course with a heart attack. A 42-year-old woman found that she hosted SNPs in four of five genes screened for osteoporosis. In both cases, and in hundreds of others, the test helped patients address diseases that might not have fully manifested themselves for a decade.
Of course, Genovations is hardly medicine's holy grail. Testing negative for predisposition to a certain disease doesn't mean you won't ever come down with it--it just means you have better odds.
Nonetheless, you can't know too much about your health. An individualized Genovations test, many doctors say, can move someone to take action in a way that mass-market Dean Ornish tomes can't. "It says, this is your personal risk," explains Richard Delany, a Massachusetts internist who's put more than 50 subjects through Genovations tests. "And all of a sudden, the patient goes out and does the recommended stuff. At that point, wouldn't you?" --KIMBERLY WONG