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The Pros and Pitfalls of Genetic Testing

Posted August. 09, 2010 11:31,   


In the 1997 science fiction film “Gattaca,” genetic analyses identify all physical traits of people from the risk of developing diseases and height to life expectancy. By doing so, people are divided into two groups -- those with dominant genes and those with recessive ones.

The protagonist Vincent Freeman, who is identified through gene analysis as violent and stupid and destined to die at age 31, buys another person’s genetic test to realize his dream of becoming an astronaut.

Last year, a Korean man took a genetic test through the U.S. gene test company 23andMe. He said on his blog, “The test results said I’m at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” adding, “The results also said my IQ and memory are more than average but my height is 0.4 centimeter below average.”

Cinematic imagination has become reality 10 years later. With advances in biotechnology, personal genetic analyses can identify personal information including propensity for certain diseases, character and appearance.

A program on a Korean cable TV channel has celebrities take a genetic test and releases the results. Though the test costs up to tens of thousands of dollars, there are people who want to take it.

Experts warn, however, that such a test misleads people with unconfirmed information.

○ Illegal in Korea, but…

A researcher at Genomic Medicine Institute of Seoul National University who conducted a genetic test on the TV program said, “After the broadcast, many people asked about the test.”

The institute said, however, “Under domestic law, commercial genetic tests are illegal so we don’t accept requests for the test.”

Under the law on life ethics and safety, disease-related genetic tests can be done only by medical institutions or organizations commissioned by them.

The institute said, “The test results of celebrities were used for research purposes,” adding, “The broadcast was possible because the celebrities agreed to release their test results.”

Though illegal in Korea, such tests are available through overseas companies. The Dong-A Ilbo contacted American companies including 23andMe and confirmed that Koreans can get their genes tested.

Such companies, however, do not send test kits to Korea containing a container for saliva and an envelope to send the container back. If those in Korea want to take a genetic test through an acquaintance in the U.S., they must receive test kits by international mail. Test fees vary from 400 to thousands of dollars.

○ `Branded by unconfirmed findings`

Kim Jong-won, a professor of laboratory medicine at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, said, “Among 23,000 genes known to be related to disease, only 3,000 have been medically verified,” adding, “The remaining genes are used to provide statistical information such as ‘a certain gene has often been found in people vulnerable to a certain disease.’”

Certain experts say test results differ in every case. In October last year, an article by J. Craig Venter, head of the leading U.S. genomic think tank J. Craig Venter Institute, carried by the global science magazine Nature said each company is conducting different analyses with the same gene.

Venter said his institute sent the genes of five people to 23andMe and Navigenics at the same time for analysis and received different results. In the risk test for heart disease and lupus, a tuberculosis skin disease, the two companies presented conflicting results for three of the five subjects.

Some say commercialization or releasing test results on disease information is premature since there is no prevention method. Lee Yu-gyeong, laboratory medicine professor at Soonchunhyang University Hospital in Seoul, said, “There’s no way to prevent a disease identified by a genetic test because the disease is not medically verified,” adding, “Such tests will only create a social disturbance.”

○ ‘Advancement slowed by law’

Genomic Medicine Institute said, “The tests on appearance and characters are unethical since they seek to determine the superiority of people by genes,” adding, “But the tests for disease will serve the public interest and contribute to medical advancement.”

On the claim that test results are not scientifically verified, it said, “We analyze dozens of articles published by scientists at home and abroad daily, and reflect some of those we find meaningful for think tanks and hospitals in our studies and tests.”

Korea recently began building a genetic database, but in the U.S., where commercialization of genetic tests is allowed, private companies such as 23andMe have databases containing the genetic information of 50,000 people.

Proponents of genetic testing say a genetic database is the key to genome analyses and urge the Korean government to help develop the country’s competitiveness in this field.

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