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Interactives -- DNA

Implications & Ethics : Introduction
 

Developments in genetic engineering and the information obtained through the Human Genome Project, as well as sequencing efforts in other organisms, have had a major impact on scientific research and on our everyday lives-and will continue to shape the future. The technology also raises a number of ethical and social issues that must be considered and explored.

Understanding Diseases and Genetic Tests

With the information obtained through the Human Genome Project and many decades of work by geneticists and other scientists, we have now identified many genes that cause or are directly linked to diseases. For example, scientists can often identify the protein made by a disease gene and compare it to the protein made by a healthy gene. This information can lead to cures or treatments.

Using genetic tests, scientists can now screen for the genes responsible for more than 900 different genetic disorders, from cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy to inherited forms of Alzheimer's disease and cancers. In individuals who have a family history of a genetic disorder, screening might be done before any symptoms of the disease appear. Prenatal screening can be done to diagnose potentially deadly genetic problems in fetuses, and newborn screening allows for the early detection and management of disorders that might be debilitating if not recognized. Other screening tests can identify individuals who carry, but are not themselves affected by, a disease gene.

Many diseases, such as cancers, are caused not by a single gene but by the interactions of many different ones. Scientists can now look at multiple genes and assess who is at a higher risk for developing those diseases. Those individuals at high risk can then reduce their odds of getting the disease by avoiding environmental factors known to contribute to the development of the disease. They also can be screened more frequently for the disease, so that if they do develop it, early treatment will improve their chance of a full recovery.

Genetic tests also are being used in other ways. Parents in some prosperous, technologically advanced countries can now go to certain fertility clinics where patented genetics technology is used to sort sperm into those carrying an X or a Y chromosome. If parents wish for a male child, only those sperm carrying a Y chromosome will be implanted into eggs using in vitro fertilization; if parents wish for a girl child, only sperm with an X chromosome will be used. With the wealth of genetic information provided by the Human Genome Project, the selection of other traits in fetuses looms on the horizon, to the concern of ethicists, scientists, and many others.


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