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How Well Do You Want to Know Your DNA?

On tonight’s PBS NewsHour, Correspondent Spencer Michels and I report on a massive, groundbreaking study underway at Kaiser Permanente and the University of California at San Francisco, which one day may shed light on the genetic roots of health conditions such as Parkinson’s, cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

UCSF Professor Neil Risch, the lead genetic researcher, told the NewsHour that the information researchers are gathering from genetic studies, at his lab and others, are on the verge of revolutionizing medicine.

“We can actually look to see how the genes that somebody has, and they’ve had since they were born, interact with environmental factors that actually work together to either increase or decrease risk of say heart disease or cancer or a whole variety of things,” Risch said.

The 200,000 Kaiser Permanente patients who submitted their saliva and blood for genetic analysis will not learn their own genetic profile; the data bank Risch and his colleagues are compiling is for research only. But a number of private companies, including 23andme are now offering personal genetics testing for as little as $99.

Despite all the research in recent years, scientists still know very little about how our genes impact our long-term health. And environmental factors play a significant role as well. So what can we actually learn from a detailed analysis of our genes? Not a whole lot … right now. But in the not-too-distant future, a simple blood test may reveal that our genetic makeup puts us at higher risk for certain diseases.

I asked people in San Francisco’s Union Square for their take on this question: If a genetic test revealed you were at risk for getting a disease, especially a disease that can’t currently be prevented or treated like Alzheimer’s, would you want to know?

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