CNN Food and Health

Genetic testing sheds new light on disease

September 25, 1995
Web posted at 12:40 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Andrew Holtz

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (CNN) -- Genetics has leaped into an era of bountiful discovery , particularly in the area of gene identification. But while identifying a gene can point toward new treatments, that work takes time. The first dividend comes in genetic testing.

Gene tests can already predict some unusual diseases, including some in which a single gene mutation has devastating consequences. A prime example: Huntington's disease.

And now researchers hope to sift through genetic records of typical families for clues to more common maladies.

"Do they have high blood pressure, arthritis and so forth," says Dr. Stephen Prescott of the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics. "And the hope's now we can make connections between their DNA patterns, which we already know...and certain common illnesses."

In the future, combinations of gene tests may be used just as cholesterol tests are now. And they promise to be more accurate, thus sparing some patients from unnecessary treatment while offering more persuasive advice.

"If I could tell you, well, you've got a one-point-five-fold risk, you might say, 'ehh, I'll take it,'" says Dr. Prescott. "If I say you've got a 100-fold risk, then you probably would be more inclined to alter your behavior."

Investigators are looking at the genes of cells that show the first signs of becoming cancer -- doctors already know how to recognize polyps that precede colon cancer -- and cut them out. Researchers hope drugs can be devised to accomplish the same thing for other cancers.

Raymond White

"I could imagine it becoming routine to go through a sort of pre-cancer 'cleansing' in the same way that we go through the inspection for our colon polyps," said Raymond White of the University of Utah.

Geneticists, however, are mindful that lifestyle and environment work in combination with genes to influence our health. They emphasize that genetic testing cannot provide all the answers.

But over the dark landscape of genetic secrets, they see signs of dawn.

"...We're still bumping into walls, with regularity," says White, "but there is some light, and that light is brightening."

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