Gene Therapy March 2018: Pandora and Your Polygenic Score

By Shannon Wieloch — March 27, 2018

1 min read

I love Greek mythology. The drama, the deceit, the scandal; it’s like The Real Housewives of New Jersey, 1300 BC.

One of my favorite stories is the one about Pandora. The Cliff Notes version goes something like this:

Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give to mankind. As punishment, Zeus sends Pandora to mankind with a box full of the worst things in the world. To be fair, he tells her not to open it. But come on, who hasn’t meticulously unwrapped the holiday gifts they found in their parents’ closet and sealed them back up again? The answer – no one. So as expected, Pandora opens said box. As much badness reigns down on the world – think plague, death, traffic jams – Pandora pulls herself together and slams the lid shut…locking the very last thing inside. Hope.

I thought of this story as I read about an advancing medical tool that may soon be on the market. The aim of this test is to provide a polygenic score: the risk of developing common diseases such as diabetes or depression, calculated from the cumulative effect of many, many genetic variants.

The concept of health report cards like this isn’t new. Doctors currently predict a person’s risk for heart disease, for example, by assessing family history, a patient’s demographics, and test results. Knowing your poly-score for common multifactorial conditions can initiate real-life changes in diet, medication regimens, and exercise routines that could counteract the effects of the genetic variants.

But just as with Pandora, the good (Hope) is mixed with the bad (see below) in this mystery medical black box.

Things to consider may include:

  1. The human genome is three billion base pairs. How well understood are the effects of a specific genetic variant, especially in light of all the other variants that are present in the genome – some that may not yet be discovered or understood?
  2. How will this affect one’s ability to obtain or maintain health or life insurance?
  3. What is the level of anxiety this information would cause an individual?
  4. How will it affect their other family members; emotionally, psychologically, financially, and medically?

Greek myths, like other cultural stories, served many purposes; they explained environmental phenomenon, retold historical events, and offered moral or life lessons.

As the potential and promise of genetics continues to grow, I think it is important to consider the lessons of Pandora’s story, or maybe it’s Spiderman’s. With great power comes great responsibility.

While this blog has been approved by CooperGenomics, the views and opinions expressed by the author are theirs alone and may or may not reflect those of CooperGenomics or their team.