Personalized Medicine – Are We Too Smart?

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Dr. Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, resigned from his position as director a few days ago leaving behind a noteworthy legacy for any scientist. Having seen the completion of the Human Genome Project, applying the findings towards personalized medicine, and recently ensuring legislation regarding anti-discriminatory acts against the contents of a person’s genetic predisposition towards certain diseases (based on their genome), Collins’ career was exceptional. As many of you know, my career goal is medicine, more specifically, that of a neurosurgeon; therefore, my thoughts regarding Collins’ extensive work deals with personalized medicine.

Personalized medicine basically involves analyzing an individual’s genome, looking at certain patterns in regions which are typically associated with certain diseases, and prescribing treatments based on that information. In other words, by looking at a person’s genome, we might be able to say that he or she has a 20% chance for pancreatic cancer, 50% chance for heart disease, 10% chance for diabetes, etc. Also, by being able to decipher this genetic “language” of disease, some parents may undoubtedly favor having abortions if they knew their fetus was going to have something like Down’s Syndrome before birth. Sooner or later, using techniques like homologous recombination, researchers (and physicians) may be able to “repair” genetic anomalies utilizing therapeutic treatments.

So what am I worried about? I think we might be approaching a point in our understanding of the human body that is dangerous. Disregarding the ethical issues, if we don’t like our soon-to-be baby, we can have an abortion. There are treatments available to control a number of common conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc. Heck, if we even have a small cough or sneezing fit, we reach for some over-the-counter drug. And now… if we have something wrong with our fundamental blueprint (genome), we can (eventually) fix that too!

Eventually, people are going to start customizing their babies. “I want a boy with blonde hair, blue eyes, 6’2″, super smart, no genetic predisposition for cancer, heart disease, balding, or anything else ‘bad.'” Granted, many people have different ideas of “ideal” qualities; however, for the most part, society will began to be skewed towards a certain set of characteristics. ALL people are going to be egg heads, relatively tall, etc. Even the gender preference will support males over females (as seen in countries like China and India). So thank you, but personalized medicine and analogous topics relating to the Human Genome Project and HapMap may ultimately cause our demise if mishandled. Everyone will look, act, feel, and think the same way. Heterogeneity will be a thing of the past, and all it’ll take is a single virus to wipe our uniform population off the map. Oh well, at least the penguins will survive. =).

Yes, I know I’m being biased and not considering all the *wonderful* things that modern advancement will bring to medicine; however, this is a real possibility. With society’s constant pursuit of being “better” than the next person, personalizing our very being is a very simple and effective way of getting ahead.

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