“A User’s Guide to Cheating Death” is a documentary series that casts light on increasingly controversial procedures, diets and revived ancient therapies that are being sought by people desperate to dramatically alter their bodies or radically improve their health, and the booming industries that are more than happy to accept their business.
Health law professor, writer and debunker-extraordinaire Timothy Caulfield dives deep into the science, and the social issues behind today’s cutting-edge health trends in order to separate the truly good advice from the excess of high-priced placebos.
Genetic testing, also known as DNA testing, allows the genetic diagnosis of vulnerabilities to inherited diseases, and it’s spawned an entire industry around personalized fitness, assessing a child’s athletic ability, and even for finding your perfect mate. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is being used by a growing number of people to make important health and life decisions, despite these tests being largely inaccurate. What are the consequences of using these faulty methods to make “healthy life choices” and is there any benefit in any of it?
The third episode of A User’s Guide to Cheating Death tackles the subjects of Genetic Testing and the Rise of Personalized Medicine and we talked to Tim about society’s fascination with genetic services and products.
Q: What made the topic of the Genetic Revolution such a fascinating one for you to analyze?
Tim: “Well, for me, this was an obvious topic. I’ve actually done a good deal of research in this space. One of the things I find so fascinating is that it is absolutely everywhere now! It has become a cultural phenomenon. There is genetic testing for everything from skin care to athletic performance to more serious conditions. Given its ubiquity – and our social investment in the topic – we wanted to really dig into the topic to get a sense of what is happening. Do these new products really help us cheat death?”
Q: Two of your children appear in this episode. How interesting was it for you to hear their perspectives on genetics and what the subject means to them?
Tim: “Fascinating. Those scenes were totally spontaneous, so it was fun to hear the responses. As you’ll see, they provide two unique stories that I think will resonate with many. To what degree should we let genetics dictate our future?”
Q: “It seems that a lot people are obsessed to find out what kind of advantages and disadvantages are attached to their genetics. How much of this is human nature’s fault, versus society’s fault?”
Tim: “My sense is that much of the fascination comes from how genetics has been represented in popular culture. There are movies about it (“Gattaca”). There are an increasing number of direct-to-consumer testing companies promising to provide useful, actionable information. And, for the most part, the media has bought into the enthusiams. I think we are all curious about where we come from and what might make us unique. But, there has been almost two decades of hype around genetics. It has been called a ‘revolution’ since the early 1990s, so I think this may have helped to generate a lot of public expectation regarding the value of genetic information.”
Q: Some rely on genetic testing to help strengthen their love life. What ever happened to people just allowing natural attraction, chemistry and emotions dictate who they should (or shouldn’t) be with?
Tim: “Isn’t that amazing! Yes, there are companies that will help you find a ‘genetic match’ (whatever that is). You send in a sample and wait for the results. Of course, there is no solid evidence to support these claims. But, this is a great example of how the excitement around the real research is being exploited to sell questionable services. Plus, how fun is finding a partner through a genetic test? Glad I met my wife the old fashioned way.”
Q: Would you personally ever want there to be a time in which genetics are so understood and figured out, that they could be manipulated and modified, like they are in the movies? If that were to happen, do you think society would act responsibly?
Tim: “I get this question a lot. But, I simply don’t believe the science will get to the point where we will be able to specifically design complex traits, at least not in the near future. Indeed, as the science moves forward we are finding more complexity, not less. The relationship between genes and the environment is fantastically complex. Yes, there will be single gene conditions and traits that might be good targets for genetic tweaking, but they are relatively rare.”