Cornell Professors Debate Pros and Cons of Genetic Testing

Laboratory sample management software

For years, biobanking has become an important component in the process of collecting, tracking and analyzing biologic samples for medical and environmental research. With the proper tools for biorepository management, such as freezer software and lab sample tracking systems, scientists have the opportunity to unlock the secrets of hundreds of medical conditions and problems. This is especially true for genetic mutations, ranging from spina bifida to Tay-Sachs disease, which can now be easily identified and hopefully treated. However, experts say that this technology also creates a number of challenges for doctors, families and patients alike.

At Cornell University’s Charter Day Weekend, a panel of experts explored a number of possible cases, revealing the potential benefits and consequences of biobanking, biorepository management and more. Titled “The Genomic Revolution: How DNA Information Is Changing Our Lives,” the panel was moderated by Stephen Hilgartner, Ph.D., a professor of science and technology studies at the famed university. Panel members were asked to consider a variety of issues genetic testing has unearthed; for example, how can and should modern parents decide if a mutation is severe enough to warrant an abortion?

Most of the panelists seemed to agree that biobanking, biorepository management and genetic testing were important enough to be worth these challenges. Rory Todhunter, Ph.D., a professor of surgery at the College of Veterinary Medicine, pointed out that humans have used genomics for centuries: by selectively breeding plants and animals, our ancestors were able to reproduce certain desirable traits that benefited or appealed to them. This practice did concentrate deleterious genes as well, but Todhunter says that this has enabled researchers to stock biobanks with genetic information that has proved useful for animal and human medicine. Other panel members agreed, stating that these benefits continue today: Margaret Smith, Ph.D., professor of plant breeding and genetics said that genetic engineering has lead to increasing crop yield potential, while Adam Bokyo, assistant professor of biomedical science, remarked that DNA sequencing has revealed important information about our genetic ancestors.

Because of its, Charles Aquadro, director of the Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics and professor of molecular biology and genetics, argued that everyone should know and care about their genome. He noted that this important factor can significantly influence the quality of a person’s life, whether they’re simply lactose intolerant or have a disease like sickle cell anemia. The NCAA currently tests for the latter, as several training deaths have been traced to the disease.

However, Dr. Philip Reilly, a partner in Third Rock Ventures, pointed out that the current approach to infant genetic screening is to only test if there is a meaningful approach to the condition. While he admitted that improving technology had made it possible to significantly decrease carrier and disease incidence rates for illnesses like Tay-Sachs disease. However, he wondered if this could lead to a new eugenics movement, or even cause consumers to seek out “superior” traits in their offspring. With the benefits of biobanking, biorepository management and genetic testing so apparent, these ethical concerns will only be resolved with time.

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