It’s only been in the last decade that we’ve been able to decode the human genome. Today genomics is a multibillion-dollar industry and growing daily. We have discovered a genetic mutation that predisposes women to breast cancer, but finding it doesn’t mean you are certain to get the disease. Angelina Jolie made headlines when she decided to have a preemptive double mastectomy because she carried the BRCA1 mutation. Her mother died from ovarian cancer, an aunt from breast cancer, and her doctors told Angelina she had an 87% risk of developing breast cancer. She went public with her story because she hoped all the women who might be living under the shadow of cancer would also get tested.
But Angelina’s genetic predisposition may not be the loaded gun as her doctors led her to believe. The Oxford University Cancer Epidemiology Unit says that women with one close relative with breast cancer have an 8% risk of developing it and it goes up to 13% with two close relatives. The Cochrane Breast Cancer Group carried out one of the largest reviews of preemptive mastectomies. In 7000 women, some of whom had healthy breasts and others who had cancer in one, researchers found that there was no survival advantage. Furthermore, half the women suffered surgical complications that required repeated operations.
I find no fault with Angelina’s decision but it’s one thing to make those decisions for yourself as an adult and quite another making them for your child at birth. The genomics industry soon we will be able to do comprehensive DNA tests on infants at birth. Parents will be sold a comprehensive genomic screening program that promises to reveal a child’s susceptibility to getting a disease. What is going to happen is that we will find lots of variations in the genetic code (because all of us have them), but have no idea of their significance. Most of the mutations we’ll find will pose no problem for the people who carry them.
I think wholesale screening of infants is dangerous.