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What's in the Autoclave? A Blog about Science

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Genetic testing and the law [Apr. 23rd, 2008|08:20 am]
What's in the Autoclave? A Blog about Science
I've been crazy busy for the last week and a half, but here's a brief topic of interest.

Congress is nearly ready to pass the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The law, which has widespread support in both political parties, would make it illegal for health insurers to deny coverage to someone based on the results of genetic tests, including currently-available tests for known breast cancer susceptibility genes, for instance. The bill had been held up in the Senate by Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, a medical doctor, who wanted some changes apparently in insurer's liability -- the NY Times article doesn't specify what exactly those changes are, but presumably it will be a part of the Congressional Record after the bill goes to the floor if people are interested.

In any case, this law should help alleviate one of the biggest fears about genetic testing: namely, that if a risk factor for some disease is discovered in a particular patient, that patient might be left uninsurable.

A few weeks ago, National Public Radio's "Science Friday" had a great discussion about genetic testing (available in podcast form here) discussing the current state of the field. Many companies are offering genetic testing kits, which are not currently regulated by the FDA and which, in some cases, may not even have very strong science behind them. Some gene variants (BRCA2 for breast cancer) have been well-characterized, but in many cases these "risk factors" still aren't strongly predictive for a particular disease. Very few diseases or physical traits are controled by single genes anyway, so it may be a bit early to be applying this kind of technology. It's technically very simple these days to test your DNA for "polymorphisms" (the small changes that make individuals different from one another) but it is often less clear what functional effect those variations have. Of course, ten years from now the story will likely be very different as we learn more; the Genetic Information Nondescrimination Act is an important example of anticipating an ethical/legal problem rather than reacting to one too late.