“Low cost” genome decoding, for better or for worse
Determining the complete sequence of human DNA will soon cost no more than a simple blood test. What consequences will this have for society? Joint interview with Denis Duboule, a geneticist, and Jacques Neirynck, a national councilor.
Denis Duboule, a geneticist and professor at the EPFL and University of Geneva, and Jacques Neirynck, EPFL professor emeritus and national councilor, discuss the issues as well as the hopes raised by inexpensive genome sequencing. This debate was the subject of the last edition of Science! on tourne. Excerpts from the interview to be published on March 28 in Flash.
Genetic sequencing will soon be affordable by all. Is there any point in making it routine?
Denis Duboule: Pretty soon there won't even be any question about it. I think in twenty years, it will happen anyway, just the way we now do routine blood tests on newborn babies.
Jacques Neirynck: But Switzerland is still behind the times. Even today, you need a medical prescription to sequence a genome, which is something I tried to fight against in parliament. In vain.
What benefits can we expect if this practice becomes routine?
J. N. Just the way vaccines were able to wipe out certain viral illnesses, sequencing can eliminate genetic diseases. Especially through pre-implantation screening tests that could be prescribed in high-risk situations, when both parents are carriers of certain genes for example.
D. D. Sequencing of individuals won't start to have real benefits for another ten years or so, when large databases have been built and software can perform effective comparisons. However, we can already get great benefits from the genetic analysis of tumors, for example. By learning more about them, you realize they are much more complex than previously believed, and you can better target the treatments.
How is that going to change society?
D. D. I think the changes will be profound, especially in the way people address health issues. The same way that the Internet facilitated the Arab Spring movement, the networking of tens of thousands of genomes will pave the way for the era of “citizen medicine” by allowing people with genetic diseases to exchange information with their peers, share their experiences with a particular drug, much more reliably and accurately than in the forums available today. This will greatly change medicine and redefine the position of doctors. Relationships among patients will take on a greater role.
J. N. At an individual level as well, knowing exactly how likely a person is to contract a particular illness can allow doctors to implement targeted prevention, to perform more regular and more specific screening tests.
D. D. But I do wonder whether a life where everyone spends his time “contemplating his genome” will really be any better. Many genes that would have remained dormant and that we would never even have heard of will become a source of anxiety and cause unnecessary lifestyle changes.
The full interview appears in the March 28 issue of Flash (in French only)