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Goading the Code

 

The future is hereā€¦ well almost! Gene testing opens new horizons and knocks on exciting new doors. Ishan Raychaudhuri peeps through the keyhole to see the mysteries that unlock the secret code...
ISHAN RAYCHAUDHURI | Issue Dated: September 30, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : dna | ivf |
 

On April 14, 2003, mankind achieved a spectacular breakthrough. We successfully profiled our entire human genome. It took us 13 years, but with it dawned the beginning of a new era. It was a discovery of the self, our most basic ingredient – the identifying and mapping of approximately 20,000–25,000 genes present in each of our DNA strands which make us laugh and make us love.

However, every single human being, apart from identical twins and cloned organisms, has a very unique genome. And this uniqueness is what makes Maddy different from Larry apart from environmental factors.
The genome is simply the entire hereditary information stored in your DNA. The human genome project mapped multiple variations of each gene. So, we didn’t really get the ultimate codebook to unlocking your genetic potential. It was an average, if you will. But that is where the fun began. With a basic codebook, we could fight our greatest nemeses. Try to understand why and whence it came and persuade it to not take us away from away before our time. Yes, I am talking about death.

Death has always been a concept worth pondering upon. From burning in hell to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, every culture has used its best minds to unlock the secrets that hide in our wake. Yet, Death has remained an unmoving mistress, her secrets buried deep inside her adamantine heart. We understood from a very primeval age that a body free of disease could keep death at bay far longer than a battered one. With death not bending to our will, we tried to reign in diseases instead.

We searched and successfully discovered the cure to many of the greatest diseases which plagued us. During the Upper Palaeolithic age, 50,000 – 10,000 years ago, the average life expectancy was a mere 33 years. A child born anywhere in the world today can easily live to be 67. In first world countries such as Canada, Japan and Australia, life expectancy has gone up into the high 80s. Yet, till today, we can only cure diseases when they present us with symptoms. Like Sherlock Holmes we piece together the different clues and stumble upon what is keeping us unhealthy. If only we could know that 10 years down the line, we might have a heart attack instead of finding it out through intense chest pain, we might act differently. We could then take preventive medicine and truly take our lives into our own hands.



Most of the time, we do things which we commonly understand to be healthy. After all, who doesn’t want to live a healthy life? Take exercise for that matter. A good, wholesome way to keep you fit. Yet, the June 2012 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings includes a review of how excessive endurance exercise is thought to cause damage to the heart. Marathon runners, triathletes and long-distance cyclists could be doing harm to their hearts in the long term, cardiologists say. So, if you are a budding marathon runner thinking of taking part in the Mumbai Marathon, wouldn’t it be very helpful if you knew that your genes have drawn the weak-heart card?

Well, there might be a way to do just that. Enter, Genetic profiling. A genetic profile is your own card to what makes you tick and what can make you “tock”. Or whether you should buy the latest Reezig and follow in the footsteps of the Greek soldier named Pheidippides, a messenger from the Battle of Marathon (the namesake of the race) to Athens or a yoga mat.

Anubhav Anusha, Managing Director of Nutragene a preventive genomic health company based out of New Delhi, says, “To date, preventive health care has been based on blood tests which give you an idea of your current state of health, thus being more reactive than proactive. For example, if your cholesterol levels are high, it means that you may already be suffering from a disease; thus the potential of a blood test is limited by its inability to help forewarn about the future risk of a disease.”

With, gene profiling, you can now make-up for that shortcoming. It helps you understand future genetic risk of developing diseases like high cholesterol, heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, different sorts of cancer, osteoporosis. Such profiling will also reveal how one might respond to different medications, and if one is trying to lose weight organisations like Nutragene and Xcode can profile your DNA to allow for a more effective weight loss strategy.”

The December 2007 paper in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part A, by Lewis A Barness, John M Opitz and Enid Gilbert-Barness named “Obesity: genetic, molecular, and environmental aspects”, identified obesity to be the leading preventable cause of death worldwide.

Anusha has a solution. He says, “If you were to customise your diet based on your DNA, the result will be much more effective in the sense that you will lose more inches and you will lose more kilos compared to someone who is on a diet, which is not customised to their DNA.” Sounds good huh?



Now for those who want to have their cake and eat it too (without guilt), but want to save a piece for their potential spouse, there is something rather interesting once you get around the tacky moniker - called DNA Kundli. Think of it as a token from the gene gods, a chart which comes from matching both yours and your partner’s DNA to tell you whether your child might turn out to be a Mozart or the Elephant Man. Isn’t science cooler than astrology?

“We had two families come in who wanted to get their children married. The bride’s brother was suffering from thalassemia and they wanted to know, if the couple got married, what the chances that their children will have thalassemia are. After DNA Kundli’s scan, it turned out that the daughter was not a carrier of the disease. It made their process a lot easier,” explains Anusha.

If you are thinking, well, that is all fine and dandy, but how do they know what cards I hold, the answer is quite extraordinary.

Apparently, we all come from one common ancestry pool. When Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa to Europe, Asia and the Americas, the changes in the environment triggered some DNA changes as we evolved new adaptations. All one has to identify initially is whether a DNA variation that exists in the European population exists in the Indian population or not. 99.99 per cent of human DNA is identical and it is the 0.01 per cent that varies across human beings. So if a European has a mutation that could potentially lead to an increased risk of blood cancer we have to see whether the same mutation exists in the Indian population and how strongly is it associated with blood cancer.

Kshitij Khemka, a real estate consultant who underwent gene testing says, “I lead a pretty relaxed life but I smoke a lot. I wanted to know what all was happening in my system because you tend to ignore a lot of things and it is better to take precautions beforehand. I basically took it for my stomach issues. I found out that there were hereditary problems from my dad's side because of which I couldn’t put on that much of weight and my metabolism was very high. It helped me but you have to follow it religiously for it to give the desired results."
We are at a great place today as a species. For the first time in the history of medicine, we are beginning to look far into the horizon and see where we are headed. We hold a power which our ancestors could never imagine.

But with great power comes that much greater responsibility. As Anusha says, “Ethical implications are immense. You have a challenge of maintaining and storing the data securely so that it doesn’t reach the wrong hands. The onus also lies on the insurance industry that could potentially use this information. As a company we are lobbying to bring in reforms so that in the future, no insurance company can discriminate based on DNA information as is the case in the United States.”

But no matter what, genetic profiling is slowly but steadily becoming the best way to understand our bodies. Will we conquer death one day by eliminating genes which cause ageing, create babies with the exact eye colour we desire or become super humans with incredible speed and strength? Only time will tell. For now, get your DNA tested before you eat that cookie!  

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017