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Genome Seen As Medical Crystal Ball

Publication Date: 
April 30, 2010
NPR - Morning Edition
Richard Knox

Professor Hank Greely, an expert on law and the biosciences, is quoted on the complexities of mapping the human genome for personalized medicine. Richard Knox of NPR's Morning Edition reports:

Stanford scientist Steve Quake was only the fifth person in the world to have his entire genetic code -– his genome — spelled out last summer. Now he claims to be the first to use it to find out just what diseases he's at risk for, and what he should do about it.

It's been an instructive exercise. He and his colleagues say it holds many lessons for how to handle the flood of genomic information that's on the horizon.

"I think the information can help people live better, but it won't do it all by itself," says Hank Greely, a Stanford ethicist involved with the project. "Just dumping data on people will not lead to better results."


But ethicist Greely says Quake's experience raises many difficult issues about the future of this new personalized medicine. That's largely because so little is known about the meaning of the genetic variations lurking in Quake's -– or any patient's -– genome.

But it also involves issues of who's going to interpret what is known. "North America has only about 2,500 genetic counselors and 1,100 clinical geneticists," Greely notes. "We were floored as we began to think seriously about how complicated it's going to be."

Everybody carries dozens of gene variants linked to diseases to one degree or another.

"There are 100 or 120 different genetic risks that one would like to talk about with Steve — or with any patient," Greely says. "We started multiplying that by two or three minutes per risk and ended up looking at five hours of genetic counseling. What's going to do that? Who's going to listen to it? Who's going to understand it? And who's going to pay for it?"

Greely says he hopes there will be at least five years to work out some of these issues. But Quake says genome sequencing is going to be widely available sooner than that. Last summer, it cost about $48,000 to sequence his genome -– down from $300 million for the very first human genome sequence in 2003. Right now, he says the cost is down to $24,000.