It’s been 60 years since Watson and Crick ran out of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and boasted at the pub nearby that they had ‘unlocked the secret to life’, and to be honest, medical and legal professionals are just as thankful for their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, even now.
“The kind of advances that have been made possible due to DNA profiling and genetic profiling are mind-boggling. The secret to whether you have a greater propensity to develop breast cancer, just like your mother or aunt, is locked in your gene code,” says Dr J S Rajkumar, Chairman and Chief Surgeon of Lifeline Hospital. And all it will take to find out whether you’re fine or need chemo, is a swab of your saliva and a few days at a good lab.
Though 99.9% of all human DNA is similar in people, technology has advanced far enough to piece apart the rest and still build completely different ‘genetic’ profiles that are unique to every person, “Every human genome is like a massive cookbook with 30,000 different recipes, that can make a billion dishes — we’re just at the tip of that iceberg,” he adds.
Though doctors like Rajkumar insist on getting a specific genetic test (costs about Rs 3,000-15,000) to find if its heriditary or a mutation, its popularity in our city is still finding its feet, “Most people see DNA tests that can’t really help them, but only their children or siblings as an unnecessary expense, at times. They don’t understand that we also study why a particular drug doesn’t cure their disease and try to find what tweaks the drug needs to treat that person specifically,” said a geneticist with the state-run genetic research centre at Taramani.
Incidentally, government hospitals like the Madras Medical College have been quietly making great strides with genetic research — especially with children and neo-nates. “When we spot signs of a genetic disorder in a child, we don’t just diagnose and treat. We usually insist on a DNA test to check if their condition is a mutation or it’s hereditary,” explains Dr Meena Jayashankar, Head of Genetics at MMC, “If it’s hereditary, we call the parents and counsel them and begin interventions to ensure that the condition doesn’t perpetuate in their next child as well. The amniotic fluid after 16 weeks is DNA tested to see if the child in the womb has a condition. This way we can ensure that the couple has at least one healthy child,” she adds. Samples for testing are sent to various labs across the country — from Hyderabad to Coimbatore, based on the disease that each gene lab specialises in working on.