Genetic Testing

December 3, 2003

With varying degrees of precision, a rapidly growing battery of tests is becoming available that can tell people whether their genetic makeup makes them especially susceptible to a host of life-threatening health problems, from rare heart disorders to some common of forms of cancer.

  • There are now genetic tests for 1,004 diseases, many of them based on a simple blood test taken in a doctor's office; there are more than three times as many as six years ago -- and the number is expected to easily double over the next five years.
  • Already, commercial labs are springing up with rights to various genetic tests and licensing them to other medical centers.
  • Most health insurance plans will now pay for genetic tests - which usually cost between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars - if they're requested by a doctor as medically necessary.
  • Colon Cancer: Scientists can detect the presence of an inherited form of colon cancer and a screening test is commercially available; but it costs several thousand dollars and is difficult to carry out.
  • Breast and Ovarian Cancer: Doctors don't recommend the test to a female patient unless there's a history of the disease within the family.
  • Diabetes: Scientists can predict with about 85 percent accuracy if a child will develop Type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes; but the tests give no indication of when the diabetes may arise, and there is no proven way to prevent it.
  • Alzheimer's Disease: Scientists can't tell if gene carriers will develop Alzheimer's for sure -- or when the disease might arise.

Source: Michael Waldholz, "Genetic Testing Hits The Doctor's Office: New Screens Can Predict Odds Of Getting 1,004 Diseases; Getting Pre-Emptive Surgery," Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2003.

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