Monday, April 7, 2008

Genetic Diagnostics - To test or not to?

Blood Matters by Masha Gessen (Book Review)

The book describes the journey of the author who is diagnosed with a genetic mutation that predisposes her to ovarian and breast cancer. As she fights personal battle, she also tries to explore the field of genetic testing, its implications as well as ethical considerations.

The jacket cover of the book claims it is “a much needed field guide to this unfamiliar and unsettling territory.” Well, it is not. It is more a rambling journey across a difficult terrain by a pioneer, discovering trails and gathering knowledge during the process. The lack of a science background and the inability to explain the fundamentals in a clear and structured way weakens the book. Explaining a complex science to the laymen is tough but has been mastered by authors like Carl Sagan, Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins. This book fails to reach that level.

However, it does capture well the agony of an individual who goes through a challenging situation created by new knowledge provided by science. This will definitely be something more of us go through in future as we will be forced to grapple with the information provided by genetic testing.

The book provides interesting information on Asheknazi Jews as well as organizations like Dor Yeshorim which collect genetic data to provide predictive information. In spite of her jewish heritage, the author covers the Nazi efforts on eugenics with equanimity. A number of genetic diseases and their current research status are covered in the book through many interviews with experts across the world. Nevertheless the lack of a clear structure, direction and focus wastes the author’s efforts to a large extent.

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