DNA Fingerprinting & Genetic Disease
DNA fingerprinting has opened the door to a world of new possibilities for the prediction of genetic disease, particularly in those with a strong family history of such illness. At the same time, the use of this relatively new technology has raised questions about its ethical implications and impact on personal privacy. And it has also forced people to decide if they really want the answers this technology can supply.
What Is DNA Fingerprinting?
Although the vast majority of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is identical in all humans, a tiny segment—less than 0.1 percent—is unique, except in identical twins. DNA fingerprinting is the collection of tissue or cell samples from individuals for possible future use. The most common way to obtain such samples is by swabbing the inside of a subject’s mouth. The general public is probably most familiar with DNA fingerprinting because of the role it can play in identifying criminal suspects who have left their DNA at the scene of a crime.
Role in Predicting Disease
DNA fingerprints also contain vital information about the subject’s likelihood to develop certain genetic diseases. By closely examining a DNA fingerprint, doctors and medical scientists can spot defective genes, as well as the absence of certain genes, both of which can be predictors of future illness.
The National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, says that a large number of conditions and diseases have a genetic component. Some of the more widely diagnosed include autism; breast, colon, prostate and skin cancer; Crohn’s disease; cystic fibrosis; Down syndrome; hemophilia; Huntington’s disease; Parkinson’s disease; retinitis pigmentosa; and sickle cell disease.
Why Testing Is Done
This type of genetic testing is performed for a variety of reasons, according to KidsHealth. Would-be parents, particularly those who already have a child with a severe birth defect, are tested to see what, if any, genetic mutations might be present in their DNA. Also routinely tested for DNA aberrations are women who have had multiple miscarriages, who have given birth to a stillborn child who had physical signs of genetic illness, and women who are pregnant and over the age of 34. DNA tests are also performed on children who appear to be at high risk of developing a genetic illness.
Pros and Cons
In its overview of DNA fingerprinting and its application in predicting genetic disease, FamilyHelix.com takes a look at some of the pros and cons of this technology. On the plus side, knowing you are at risk for certain genetic ailments allows you to take steps to avoid or minimize their effects; begin early screening for signs of the illness; and prepare “emotionally, physically and financially for possible illness.” Critics of this type of testing worry about the accuracy of testing methods and privacy issues, including possible misuse of test results. Also cited as a major concern is the emotional turmoil that test subjects are likely to suffer when informed that they may develop a particular disease.