Within 5 years it will be possible to map a newborn baby’s genome from a sample of blood by a prick on the heel, similar to the current testing for cystic fibrosis. Within ten years, routine mapping of babies’ genomes will have become a reality, since legal issues and costing will have been solved by then. This brings with it huge medical advantages, as well as opening up a groundswell of controversy. Diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions may be predicted and preventive measures put in place; decisions about coupling and procreating may be more solidly based with the knowledge of one’s genome in relation to that of one’s partner’s. But on the opposite side of the coin are privacy issues and ethical questions. For example, would you want your employer or your health insurer to know of a possible susceptibility to emotional disorders revealed in your genome? And would you want to know ahead of time if you had the gene for Alzheimer’s Disease?
Genome mapping has become a reality because of the decreasing cost of the exercise. The first DNA sequencing of a human genome occurring in 2001 cost about $4 billion. But the cost of James Watson’s and Craig Ventor’s DNA sequencing two years ago was a mere $1 million. This represents an exponential drop in costing, and it is predicted that the procedure will take a few hours and cost less than $100 by 2012. (Reference: The Times Online, February 9th, 2009)
The baby in the picture, my grandson Lee Dickenson, has obvious physical features from both sides: his mother’s blue eyes, his father’s nose and expression, his paternal grandmother’s mouth and possibly my wide-set eyes. But would it be helpful to be able to predict certain hereditary possibilities that might suggest future health issues? I would say “yes”. The social and moral issues can be solved in time, just as the legal and financial obstacles have been shown to be surmountable. In any case, the genie is already out of the bottle, and there is no going back. Therefore, let’s embrace this new technology, while at the same time engaging in the debate surrounding it.