Will My Son Develop Cancer? The Promise (And Pitfalls) of Sequencing Children’s Genomes
Can you imagine wanting to know whether your newborn baby will fall victim to Alzheimer’s disease decades down the road? What about cancer or diabetes?
Emma Warin can. In August she gave birth to a healthy 8-lb., 3-oz. boy. She agreed to participate in an unprecedented study in which researchers will map out every speck of DNA in her son’s genome, potentially revealing mutations that could cause health problems now and far into the future. Warin, a medical-device sales representative in Falls Church, Va., says the information will help her plan ahead for any issues. Still, she adds, “It’s a little scary.” (TIME Explains: The Science of Genome Sequencing)
The first in a five-part series exploring the promise and pitfalls of sequencing children’s genomes
When it comes to your health, the debate about how much information is too much is about to get a lot more complicated. Whole-genome sequencing (WGS), a scientific breakthrough less than 10 years old, is on its way to becoming a mainstream medical test. When researchers first mapped a human genome in 2003, the effort cost $2.7 billion. Now the price for analyzing a person’s genetic code is down to $7,500 and falling. As the test gets cheaper, it’s expanding beyond cancer patients seeking tailored therapies and people suffering from mystery illnesses; the government is already starting to consider the possibility of scanning the genome of every newborn baby. Eventually the test could even become available through drugstores, for anyone with curiosity and a credit card.
Experts say this will open an uncharted — and possibly chilling — frontier in medicine. WGS can provide early warnings about some of the deadliest and most debilitating diseases. Those warnings, in turn, can enable timely treatment or at least allow people to make plans about long-term care. But the drawbacks can be significant. Murky findings, for instance, can send patients on odysseys of costly, risky and potentially unnecessary additional tests.