Health Care and Technology

Who would like to live to 120?

May 23, 2013
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Who would like to live to 120?
Richard Leach. Photo via tedxgrandrapids.org

Could genetic medicine be the wave of the future?

Rick Leach, genomics expert and vice president of business development for Complete Genomics, thinks so.

Leach posed the question, “How many people would like to live to be 120?” during his talk at TEDxGrandRapids last month.

Many in the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre applauded the idea.

Leach said that genomic medicine could be the key to making that happen, by both improving and extending life.

Our current health care system is based on reactive medicine, while genomic medicine allows for risk assessment before a disease strikes.

The individualized approach of genomic testing allows for the measurement of a person’s risk for different diseases and, therefore, can influence preventative treatments and options for patients.

Angelina Jolie

In fact, genomic medicine picked up the perfect poster woman this month — actress Angelina Jolie — who wrote a piece in The New York Times, explaining her choice to have a double mastectomy due to finding out that she had a “faulty” BRCA1 gene that put her at an 87-percent risk of breast cancer and a 50-percent risk of ovarian cancer.

Since Jolie's piece ran, there has been much conversation about how knowing about genetic risk for disease can save lives. People have called Jolie courageous for the decision she made based on the genetic knowledge she was provided.

Genetic-testing market and pre-empting disease

To date, Leach said 100,000 genomes have been sequenced, and the cost has substantially dropped to approximately $3,000 per genome.

Still out of range for common health care practice, however, Leach believes that an industrialized process could make the testing even more affordable.

Money magazine reported that Jolie’s test was conducted by Myriad, which is the only company that conducts tests related to the BRCA genes, known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. The test reportedly cost $4,000. 

The article also notes that genetic testing is classified as a preventative measure under the law.

Some experts are projecting that genome sequencing could cost as little as $1,000 in the near future, and some tests are covered by insurance.

Genetic testing companies are popping up as demand for this service continues to gain in interest.

One such company, 23andMe was founded in 2006 by Linda Avey, Paul Cusenza, and Anne Wojcicki in California and uses recent advances in DNA analysis technologies and web based interactive tools to help individuals understand their genetic information.

23andMe offers reports on more than 240 health conditions and traits and testing for more than 40 inherited conditions.

The company’s website says it has more than 250,000 genotyped customers.

Disease research

In addition to helping people understand their inherited traits, 23andMe also does research to try and help understand diseases, like Parkinson’s and Sarcoma, and clients are able to opt into any of the research.

Leach’s Complete Genomics is also focused on research, providing outsourced services to academic and biopharmaceutical researchers, to establish the "genetic basis of disease and gain insight into how we might prevent, diagnose and treat genetic diseases,” according to its website.

Drug effectiveness

In addition to finding out personal risk for specific diseases, Leach said that many people are taking drugs to manage certain conditions that are simply not working, because their body doesn’t metabolize that drug.

He suggested that the current health care financing crisis might be helped mightily by people not being prescribed drugs that don’t work for them — something that genetic testing can find out. 

So will the next generation be living well into their 100s?

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