You will die at 33 years old

Nerve condition – 60% probability
Manic depression – 42%
Obesity – 66%
Attention Deficit Disorder – 89%
Heart Disorder – 99%
Life expectancy – 33 years

Although this list of diseases that may soon plague the newborn Vincent in the dystopian world of Gattaca (1997) may seem a dream of the future, the completion of the Human Genome Project has already transported us to this era of peering into our cells in order to look ahead towards our future. With new private companies such as and jumping at the opportunity to combine new sequencing techniques with this treasure trove of information, a glimpse into your “future diary” is here, serving up your risks to develop certain diseases.

One of the most surprising results of the Human Genome Project is that any two humans on this planet share at least 99.9% of their genetic material. That means for every 1000 base pairs – the “rungs” on the DNA ladder – only one is different between these two strangers. But what a difference that one can make: it can decide whether we are fair-skinned or dark-skinned, whether we’re the next great supermodel or an average Joe, whether we’ll be the world’s tallest man or the littlest little person. But it can also determine whether we’ll develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, be susceptible to arthritis or violent tendencies, be manic depressive or have a heart disorder.

These 1-in-1000 variations among people are known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and they are these companies’ bread and butter. Send in a sample of your DNA, either from a scrape of cheek cells or a small vial of blood, and they’ll find your personal variations in this ocean of SNPs, compare it to a database relating certain SNPs to a battery of diseases and conditions, and send you the results in a way not so different from the printout baby Vincent received as his welcome into the world of Gattaca.

This is just what Congress imagined when it committed $3,000,000,000 to the Human Genome Project in 1990. Accessing our genetic secrets, we would be able to head off diseases before they got a chance to rear their ugly heads. But, as David Hunter and his colleagues point out in a new article in the New England Journal of Medicine, things might not be so easy just yet. Numerous concerns are raised by these genetic profiles of disease risk, such as the validity of the tests, their predictive power, and whether knowing that we’ll develop a disease that we don’t yet have the knowledge to do anything about is even any good at all. Even worse, they suggest, is that a person who receives results suggesting, say, a low risk of cardiovascular disease may forgo the healthful diet and regular exercise only to end up developing heart problems because of their misguided ways.

So, for now, it seems like the best thing to do is let these tests be perfected and the wrinkles be ironed out. Keep doing those things you always hear about: eat healthy, exercise at least a few times a week, and get regular checkups with your doctor. Tomorrow’s medicine is at the doorstep, but today’s isn’t so bad either.

-Chris Adkins




Gattaca disease probabilities from


~ by slipstream99 on January 11, 2008.

3 Responses to “You will die at 33 years old”

  1. Fascinating first entry on the class blog. Thanks for the link to the NEJM article.

  2. Having the genome sequenced is a great step, but is it really that simple?

    Research mentioned in a recent SEED magazine article suggests that the developmental processes based on one’s genes may not be binary.


  3. […] huge surge in the number of genetic tests being marketed directly to patients, as I wrote about last time, presents the same problem if not an even more exaggerated risk to the wellbeing of patients. A NYT […]

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