Genetic disease, genetic testing and the clinician

Modern medicine emphasizes treatment of the sick. It is often said that the widespread genetic testing soon to follow the completion of the Human Genome Project will usher in a new era of preventive medicine. Such changes require new ways of thinking, however. For example, there may be nothing clinically wrong with a healthy patient who requests genetic testing, even if the tests reveal disease genes. Since all individuals have genetic skeletons in their closets, it is important to be careful not to confuse having disease genes with having the diseases that they cause. Unfortunately, many in the public have adopted a kind of genetic determinism that sees genes as destiny: for example, having the gene associated with colon cancer means they will develop colon cancer. Physicians tend to be more careful, yet even they are not immune to subtle versions of genetic determinism. One example of this is the uncritical categorization of certain diseases as “genetic”. In fact, an adequate concept of genetic disease is extremely difficult to come by. The simplest notion would require a 1:1 correspondence between a disease and its genes, but this is the exception rather than the rule. For example, cystic fibrosis (CF) is often put forward as a good example of a genetic disease, since it seems to result from mutations in a single gene, CFTR. Even in this case, however, the exact relationship between CFTR mutations and disease is not clear, as virtually every possible combination of sweat chloride test results, genetic test results, and symptoms has been observed.[1] If a patient presents with the classic symptoms of CF and is found to have a mutation in the CFTR gene, the physician might understandably infer that the mutation caused the disease. But if an asymptomatic patient is tested and it is discovered that he or she has a CFTR mutation, it is unclear what this means. The doctor might tell the patient the gene is abnormal and that he or she is likely to develop pulmonary problems, etc., but it’s not really known whether even this qualified prognosis is true..
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