Sharon Ufberg, DC looks at the importance of genetics in relation to genomics versus family history.

by Sharon Ufberg, DC

J.Craig Venter, genomics pioneer, was recently named one of Time Magazines most influential people in the world. As one of the leading scientists of the 21st century, Venter is one of the first humans to have his entire genome sequenced. I recently read a short interview with J. Craig in the San Francisco Chronicle where he discusses the “democratization of genomics” through companies such as 23andMe that provide an opportunity for individuals to order gene testing.

An interesting and somewhat disturbing part of the interview is Venter’s comparison of looking at your genome versus the family history. In one short answer he described your genome as “a totally unique combination of an interchange of DNA from your parents” compared to the family history description as “just a hint of things.”

What??? This very lackadaisical attitude about family history information flies in the face of everything currently being promoted in traditional Western medical circles with regard to preventative health care practices. As a risk assessment tool, the family history information is an invaluable piece of information that assists practitioners in determining a patient’s total health picture and personalizing recommendations for care. Even Venter himself admits to taking a regular statin prescription as the result of a family history of heart disease. (His father died of a heart attack at age 59). Of course he probably also did a lipid panel!

The NIH finds the topic compelling enough to be putting on an entire conference on the subject of Family History and Improving Health in August 2009. The website gives all the details about this State-of-the-Science conference.

Senior clinical genetic counselor and educator, Cynthia Kane, explains that the family history is an essential tool for health professionals to find clues about whether the inheritance of certain combinations of genes has influenced disease risk in a family. This information may then be applied to an individual family member’s risk. Without the family medical history, it is difficult to determine which patient would benefit from genetic testing and also how best to interpret genetic test results.

With 20 million genes now known to science it will be years before the technology of genome testing will be beneficial to every day general medicine and prevention.

Today as practitioners we do have the ability to use family history information in our practices to assess disease risk and provide recommendations for promoting good health. It is part of our job to guide our patients through the myriad of health care options now available to them. The few factors in an individual’s total health picture that are not modifiable are the patient’s age, genetics and past medical history. However there are many more modifiable factors that are important components in overall patient health. These include diet, exercise, smoking cessation and appropriate medications. Let’s keep asking our patients about their family history while we wait for technology to catch up with J. Craig Venter’s scientific contributions to genetics.


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