On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

The promise and peril of genetic testing and personalized medicine

Share story

Bakken Museum event
Moderator Dr. Jon Hallberg (left) talks with Mary Ahrens and Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff at the Bakken Museum series, "On the Verge."
Courtesy of Bakken Museum

And now, a conversation on health care in the age of 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

An exploration of the promise and perils of genetic testing and the search for individualized medical care. MPR's regular medical analyst Dr. Jon Hallberg moderates a discussion at the Bakken Museum with a genetic counselor and a medical doctor.

Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff says "we have a misunderstanding that genes are destiny, rather than possibility."

He added, "if things were clear instead of nuanced, life in medicine would be a lot easier." 

Genetic counselor Mary Ahrens pointed out that genetic testing sometimes shows things that individuals, and their family members, didn't anticipate. 

There are risks and benefits of genetic testing, and ethical concerns about informed consent. What happens to your DNA when the test is over? Usually, the lab owns it. Businesses like 23andMe and Ancestry.com ask people to sign away their rights to their own DNA, Plotnikoff said. Some of this DNA data is sold to other businesses and pharmaceutical companies. "What is the appropriate use?" He added we must be careful about an individual's use of the information as well. 

Regarding 23andMe and Ancestry.com, Plotnikoff said "it's the Wild West. We are in the covered wagon stages and people can do whatever. People get drawn into this vortex, and there is a lot of bad information out there."

"A lot of people don't know what they don't know," he added, "and that's where the risk comes in. Partnering with an informed health professional is really crucial to make sense of this." And, we have to continually ask the right questions.

Hallberg concluded that "people still need to meet with a smart human being to put this stuff in context." 

John Hallberg, MD, is medical director of the University of Minnesota Physicians Mill City Clinic. He's the regular medical analyst on Minnesota Public Radio and moderator of the "On the Verge" series. 

Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, is medical director at Minnesota Personalized Medicine.

Mary Ahrens, MS, LGC, is a licensed genetic counselor at the University of Minnesota Health/Fairview clinics. She is associated with the Genetic Counseling Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota.

The discussion was held July 12, 2018 in Minneapolis as part of the Bakken Museum's "On the Verge" series exploring life-changing inventions in health.

To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.