DNA Testing: The Disconnect Between Patients and Researchers | WSJ


– [Narrator] If you’ve
taken a 23andMe test to see if you have a
pre-disposition towards Alzheimer’s or used Ancestry.com to figure out if heart disease runs in your family, you’re benefiting from genetic research. That’s because those
commercial DNA testing services rely on vast data sets of DNA donated by members of the
public to universities. Thanks to this donated DNA, we’ve been able to uncover the
role genes play in disease. But what about the donors? Do they fully understand
what’s being offered and the limitations of those benefits? This is the result of an
ongoing power imbalance. Scientific progress has always relied on the altruism of people, but as researchers attempt
to redress this one-sidedness by sharing more information
with participants, new tensions are arising,
like miscommunication and a mismatch of expectations. – Research, including, in
particular, genomic research, started with the idea of trying to find generalizable knowledge, right? It does not aim to help
individual participants in getting better health care. – [Narrator] Heidi Rehm
is the Medical Director of the Broad Institute’s clinical lab. The Broad is one of the
premiere sequencing facilities in the world. – The challenges in
understanding the causes of both common and rare
disease is essentially a big data problem. We need many many thousands of patients and individuals in the population to solve the causes of both rare
disease and common disease. (air blowing) This room is full of thousands, in fact millions, of samples. In the case of rare disease,
it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. We need to find those very rare patients, and to do that, we need
to enroll and sequence hundreds of thousands,
millions, of patients worldwide. – (laughs) Ha ha ha. Hey. – [Narrator] That was the
case with the Vesce family. Two of their children, Leah and Frankie, were born with a very rare
and unknown condition. Neither can speak or walk, and both are fed through feeding tubes. Both children also have frequent seizures. For 14 years, Gianna Vesce searched for an answer without success. While browsing a Facebook group, she stumbled across the
Rare Genomes Project, which is run out of the Broad Institute. The scientists behind
the Rare Genomes Project are like detectives for DNA cold cases. Their focus is finding
the genetic causes behind the rarest conditions, those that stump even the best doctors. What the Rare Genomes Project
offers its participants is essentially a super DNA test. One far more in depth than those provided by commercial services, and one that could potentially provide an answer for people like the Vesce family. – I said, “I’m just gonna give it a shot.” And we went on the website,
fit the bill for me for my family, people who
have pretty much exhausted all of genetic testing and
still, inconclusive findings. – [Narrator] The Rare
Genomes Project enrolled the entire Vesce family,
sequencing not just Frankie and Leah’s DNA, but also
that of both parents. Even middle child Adriana, who
does not have the condition, submitted her blood sample to the study. – So at first, I was like,
“Um, no, I’m not doing this, “it’s too scary”, but then
I realized that if it were to really help them, I’ll
do it, but… (laughs) I really don’t like
getting my blood drawn. – I feel like for the
first time, I had hope. They worked with families like us before, and we’ve given them answers. So to me, it was a light
at the end of the tunnel. It was incredible. – [Narrator] The researchers
did figure out what was wrong with Leah and Frankie. Both children have a disease
known as Neurodegenerative Pontocerebellar Hypoplasia
with Microcephaly. The condition is associated with extremely rare genetic mutations. There are only a handful
of documented cases. – When we got Frankie and Leah’s answer, I just kept seeing Adriana. I would never want her to go
through what we went through. (light instrumental music) – [Narrator] The DNA that
was extracted from the blood sample Adriana submitted to
the Broad was never analyzed. That’s because the goal of
the Rare Genomes Project is to understand and
identify rare diseases, not to provide ancillary medical information to participants. Although the project had
requested and collected samples from every family member, the researchers never tested
the middle child, Adriana. The family had been briefed
on the risks and benefits of participating, but
they didn’t fully grasp this important point. That’s not uncommon, according
to medical ethicists. It’s like participants and
researchers aren’t speaking the same language. – So when I said, “Okay,
can we test Adriana?” Now, they said, “No, you have
to do that independently.” – [Narrator] Adriana is healthy. But knowing if she has the
faulty gene could impact her future plans for
having her own children. – So I was like, I didn’t
know Adriana wasn’t kinda part of that package, because I mean, she technically could be a carrier of it. So I would think it would just be due… Have them do their due diligence
just to test her for it. – [Narrator] This
disconnect of expectations between researchers and
the patients participating in their studies is becoming
increasingly common. Although there’s no
hard data on the issue, ethicists like Professor
Sabatello expect the tension to grow as DNA sequencing
studies expand in size and scope, and as their findings
impact health care decisions more and more. – Genetic information is often
considered to be special. There are controversies about it, but it is often considered special, in the sense that… That results may impact
not only the individual, but also family members. (light electronic music) – So when we sequence
families and enroll families in our research studies,
we’re mainly focused on identifying the causes of disease in the affected individuals. – [Narrator] The researchers
only sequence healthy siblings if they need additional
information to determine what genes cause disease. In the case of the Vesce family, sequencing Adriana wasn’t
necessary to uncover the genetic change responsible for
Frankie and Leah’s condition. It’s something that the
family will have to figure out how to pay for. It could cost them a few hundred dollars to test Adriana for the faulty gene, according to Broad scientists. – I would rather know if
I have the gene or not, because it’s just better
to know than not know whether you have something. – Whether or not I chose
to enroll in the study and get answers for a family of five, as opposed to just the two,
I would’ve done it anyway. (light instrumental music)

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