Learning What Your Genome Contains

From today’s Wall Street Journal health blog, here’s the story of a Stanford professor who used information from his genome to change his diet and exercise patterns to bring his blood sugar levels back to normal. It appears to illustrate the upside of genetic testing.

Snyder, who is 56, two years ago decided to see what genetics might tell him about his own health. He’s not alone, as the cost of mapping a person’s full genetic profile has been dropping quickly, as WSJ reports, raising questions about how best to use the information. Colleagues sequenced Snyder’s whole genome, which revealed a number of potential health issues.

He learned he has an elevated risk for heart disease, not unexpected since “everyone on my father’s side died of heart failure,” he says. Surprisingly, he also discovered he is at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes. “For me, that came out of nowhere,” he says.

Snyder is physically active and isn’t overweight. And, at the time of the genome test, his glucose level was normal. But the level began rising gradually over the next few months. Finally, at a physical, the doctor told him the latest tests showed, “You are diabetic.”

He ramped up his bike riding and added running to his regimen. He cut out most sweets. “It took six months, but my glucose came back to normal,” he says. His doctor now calls him a “managed diabetic,” says Snyder, who has so far avoided needing medication.

Snyder is one of the drivers behind a Stanford study of faculty members in the genetics department who were offered the chance to get their genome sequenced and interpreted. Participants will be followed for more than a year to see how they use the information to manage their health, how they react to unexpected findings and other issues.

A downside of having your genome analyzed is that, legally or illegally, risk factors could potentially be used against you by employers or insurers. Federal law has some protections in place against such abuses, but we are at such an early stage in the application of this technology that the future is very much uncharted territory.

An interesting sidelight of this doctor’s story, not fully addressed in this article, is the fact that his diabetes first emerged very shortly after he was told that he had a genetic predisposition to that disease.

Certainly that could be a coincidence and there’s no overt indication to the contrary. But what an odd coincidence!