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The reality of sci-fi

POSTED August 3, 2012 10:44 p.m.

Like many people around the world, I am a fan of science fiction. The genre asks the question “what if?” and then allows for an infinite number of answers. What if is fun to ponder, but a new scientific development — and the implications of its usage — have me wondering, should we?

It’s always fun to watch classic science fiction movies that portray the future —  which is usually close to the year we’re living in now — as a place where cars  can fly, money is obsolete and a four course meal can be prepared in seconds by pushing a button.

While amusing, it’s also a bit sad to realize that my car still takes gasoline to run and asphalt to get there. I also spent at least three hours the other day preparing a meal for my family, in which I received little gratitude.

The best sci-fi movies are the ones that present a moral question in relation to a scientific breakthrough. While the themes of a true classic like “Frankenstein” are easy to understand — man playing God by creating the monster and the dangers of knowledge — more modern movies also have profound ideas and are worth a viewing.

One of my favorite movies is “Gattaca.” This 1997 movie that stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law paints a picture of a world where genetics rule. The majority of babies in the time of “Gattaca” are created through careful genetic manipulation, not “natural” selection.

When seeking employment, DNA analysis along with blood and urine samples are required and only the genetically suitable are offered positions doing anything other than custodial work.

When I first saw this movie, I wasn’t afraid at all that genetic testing might actually become a mandated part of human resources practices. It was just an interesting moral question to ponder…until I read an Associated Press story about the company 23andMe seeking Food and Drug Administration approval for its personalized DNA test.

23andMe is part of an industry that allows consumers to peek into their genetic code for details about their ancestry and future health. The company's saliva-based kits claim to help users detect whether they are likely to develop illnesses like breast cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.

For years, the Silicon Valley company has resisted government regulation, arguing that it simply provides consumers with information, not a medical service. But now company executives say they are seeking government approval — and the scientific credibility that comes with it.

"It's the next step for us to work with the FDA and actually say, 'this is clinically relevant information and consumers should work with their physicians on what to do with it,' " said CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Google and Brin have invested millions in the privately held company, which is based in Mountain View, Calif.

Wojcicki says the shift in strategy reflects the growing scope of the company's test kit, which now measures the risks of developing more than 115 different diseases.

If getting your genetic code tested becomes a common occurrence for consumers, how long will it be before employers ask for the information? Sure, at first it would only be a voluntary disclosure; but how long before municipalities claim that knowing who is at risk of heart attack before hiring will save tax payers money on health insurance?

I am all for preventative health measures and screenings meant to detect diseases before they manifest. But it’s one thing to sit down with your physician and go over potential genetic risks, and another to test yourself and draw your own conclusions from the results.

This is one of those moments in time that will shape the future of society. Will health information remain a right of privacy or will you need to submit a DNA sample with your next job application? Only time will tell.

This column is the opinion of Kristina Hacker and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.

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