Explosive advances in DNA testing raise hope, ethical questions

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A Calgary author and university professor says advances in DNA testing available to the average person are taking off, but so are ethical questions Canadians will be forced to address.

Tom Keenan, author of Technocreep and a professor of environmental design at the University of Calgary, says genetic testing has come a long way.

“Well everybody knows about 23andme.com, they were pretty much the original ones,” Keenan told The Homestretch this week.

“They do about one million DNA letters, one million base pairs. They are looking for things like your ancestry and certain diseases, but there is this amazing company down in Massachusetts that will do your entire genome, instead of talking about three million base pairs, [we are talking about] three billion base pairs. It is the kind of thing that, just a few years ago, the human genome project needed $3 billion in 10 years to do, now anybody pretty much can get it.”

Keenan says that Massachusetts company, Veritas Genetics, works to ensure its clients understand what they are looking at.

“You can only get this if you work with a U.S. physician who orders it, and that physician is supposed to be your guide. What they don’t want is somebody to say, ‘I have no risk of prostate cancer, I will stop getting tested for that.’ They don’t want people to make bad medical decisions. The company also includes 30 minutes on the phone with a genetic counsellor,” Keenan said.

“They are doing everything they can to try to help you make sense of this information.”

He says the $1,000 US price tag is worth it for some.

“I think everybody who is rich and intelligent in the U.S. is probably going to be doing it. I know Calgarians who every year go down for an executive physical. They go to the Mayo Clinic or somewhere like that because they can afford it. They get complete body scans and I suspect this year they will also be getting their genome sequence because why wouldn’t they?”

Keenan warns, however, that not all countries are equipped to deal with the ethical questions that can arise.

“Basically, your doctor is obligated in Canada to give out information on your genetic testing. If an insurance company goes to the hospital you were in or [to] your doctor and says, ‘We want the genetic results,’ then that has to be disclosed, whereas in Australia the clinician can say no. There are laws in the U.S. that prohibit the use of genetic information. There is actually a move, bill S-201, to give Canada a similar law that would ban discrimination based on your genetics,” he said.

“There’s a landlord in Toronto who is requiring tenants to submit genetic information and there is nothing illegal about doing this now. He is getting away with doing it.”

So would Keenan consider getting his own DNA tested?

“Yes, but maybe not with my own name on it.”


With files from The Homestretch

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Explosive advances in DNA testing raise hope, ethical questions

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