Do parents even want to know what fate might await their babies? Can doctors find out anything useful medically? Do you get information that freaks you out? All over the country, thousands of newborns will be enrolled in this experiment, the National Institutes of Health announced on Wednesday.
They're not necessarily looking for new diseases in the babies yet, says Dr. Eric Green, director of the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). They want to know what happens if you even go down this road of whole-genome sequencing.
Now's the time, he said, as companies begin offering these tests on the market and as more and more people seek to find out just what their genes say about their health. "Everything is moving so fast," Green told reporters on a conference call.
"We really want to take advantage of this window of opportunity to answer key questions about the technical, ethical, social implications while we have a chance to do it," Green added. "If it turns out this is something that is worth doing, we would answer questions about how to make it most effective."
Green's genome institute and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has set aside $25 million for the next five years to study the matter, starting out with $5 million to four institutions: Brigham and Women's Hospital and Boston Children's Hospital; Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City; the University of California, San Francisco and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Each center will take a different approach. For example, UCSF will test blood drops previously collected from 1,400 California children who were already given newborn screening tests. Boston Children's will recruit 480 newborns starting early next year, giving half the standard screening and half an extra genome test.
Most of the 4 million children born in the U.S. each year get a heel-prick test that takes a drop of blood to screen for genetic diseases such as phenylketonuria, sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis and thyroid disorders. The precise panel differs from state to state but usually covers around 30 disorders.
One reason to do the tests, says NICHD director Dr. Alan Guttmacher, is to intervene early, before the child gets sick. Phenylketonuria or PKU is a classic example. It's an inability to process an amino acid called phenyl lanine, which can build up in the brain and cause permanent damage. "By knowing the baby has the disease early, parents can modify the baby's diet to remove phenylalanine and prevent damage," Guttmacher said. "Prevention is the only effective solution."
The heel-prick tests cost around $100. Whole-genome screening covers not only known genetic defects, but the entire DNA map. Commercial tests – which don't look at every stretch of DNA – cost about $5,000.
Image: Infant getting blood test, via Shutterstock