Playing in the gene pool

What issues should you consider before deciding to probe into your health at a genetic level? 

Words: Rowena Robertson

With the rapid advances in medical technology, genetic testing has become increasingly popular and, of late, has become a hot topic of moral debate.

The sophisticated process involves taking a sample of blood, skin, hair, saliva or (prenatally) embryo, placental tissue or amniotic fluid1, and performing a direct examination of a person’s chromosomes, DNA or the biochemical product of a gene.

In Australia, genetic testing is now available to estimate the risk of a person developing a variety of diseases, including adult-onset cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and type 1 and 2 diabetes. There is also a growing market for online genetic testing called direct-to-consumer (DTC) testing, which allows a person to bypass the health system and perform tests at home.
However, there are many factors to be considered before embarking on a path of genetic discovery – the results may have complicated implications, not only for the person being tested but also for their family.

The benefits

“Genetic testing can be helpful in confirming the diagnosis in a patient with symptoms that fit with a specific genetic disorder or in predicting future risk of developing an inherited disease in someone with a strong family history of that disease,” says Melbourne general practitioner Dr Angus Husband.

“Detection of a genetic disorder that increases the risk of certain cancers might allow more frequent testing aimed at early detection of such a cancer at a curable stage.”

Dr Husband adds that knowledge of genetic conditions might help people make major financial or family planning decisions. The results may also act as a catalyst for starting on a course of preventative medical treatment or may help people make more informed healthcare decisions.

Points to ponder

But there are other things to be mindful of when considering genetic testing. When it comes to tests that can give a definitive result, each individual must weigh up whether or not they really want to know that they will develop a particular disease and what will be gained from that knowledge.

“Detection of a genetic defect might result in the stress of knowing that a disease will develop in the future and there may not be any treatment available to prevent or treat that disease,” explains Dr Husband.

It’s worth considering the fact that, legally, you must disclose the results of any genetic testing to your life insurance company, which may affect your premiums or lead to the denial of an offer for insurance2.

Having a genetic predisposition to a disorder doesn’t necessarily mean your fate is sealed. Many tests cannot predict whether a person will definitely develop a disease; they can only determine the probability of developing it. And a genetic test can’t determine how other factors, such as the environment, might influence the outcome3.

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References: 1 DNA Genetic Testing – screening for genetic conditions and genetic susceptibility. Fact sheet 21. genetics.edu.au/pdf/factsheets/fs21.pdf 2 Life Insurance Products and Genetic Testing in Australia. Fact sheet 23. genetics.edu.au/pdf/factsheets/fs23a.pdf 3 Genetics Home Reference website, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/testing/uses

Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.