Cracking Your Genetic Code
What will it mean when most of us can afford to have the information in our DNA—all six billion chemical letters of it—read, stored and available for analysis? NOVA's Cracking Your Genetic Code reveals that we stand on the verge of such a revolution. But what are the moral dilemmas raised by this new technology? Will it help or hurt us to know the diseases that may lie in our future? What if such information falls into the hands of insurance companies, employers or prospective mates? One thing is for certain: the new era of personalized, gene-based medicine is relevant to everyone, and soon you will be choosing whether to join the ranks of the DNA generation.
The media resources below enable educators to present some of the bioethical debates that surround genetic testing.
For additional classroom resources, download media resources and tips to find related resources from NOVA and the Hastings Center, or expert perspectives on gene-based medicine to help clarify your own views about ethical dilemmas.
This video excerpt from NOVA uncovers the genetic mystery that nearly killed Alexis, now 14, and introduces the debate surrounding genetic testing at birth. After diagnosing Alexis and her twin brother Noah with cerebral palsy at a young age, doctors later discovered that the twins shared a rare genetic mutation that led to a condition that mimics cerebral palsy. The twins improved after receiving treatment, but then Alexis took a turn for the worse. Thanks to whole genome sequencing, doctors discovered a second problem linked to the mutation and gave her a different treatment that saved her life.
This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.
This video excerpt from NOVA examines a genetic screening technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. PGD enables researchers to identify mutations in an embryo’s DNA that can lead to birth defects and more than 300 diseases, including Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis, and some cancers. While the technique allows parents who use in vitro fertilization (IVF) to better understand the risk that their child might be diagnosed with a terrible disease, it is also being used in some parts of the world to select for sex. Serious ethical questions are being raised about this use and about the possibility of expanding the list of traits that are screened for.
This video excerpt from NOVA examines the dilemma some people face when they are deciding whether to undergo genetic testing. Journalist Catherine Elton describes her decision to refuse a test for BRCA1, a mutation that signals an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers, despite the history of disease in her family. The video also explains that genetic testing results can help some individuals improve their wellness, prevent the onset of diseases they are at risk for, or lessen the harmfulness of diseases they do contract.
This video excerpt from NOVA examines the promise and realities of developing drugs designed to treat genetic disorders. The video presents the story of one patient, Michael McCarrick, whose lungs were devastated from years of suffering from cystic fibrosis. After researchers identified the gene involved in cystic fibrosis, it took decades to find ways to fortify the faulty protein responsible for the serious illness. While two drugs, including one called Kalydeco, offer a small number of patients hope that they will not have to endure a lung transplant, it may be years and several hundred million more development dollars before effective drugs are available for a wider population.
In this media-rich, self-paced lesson, students examine technologies that help scientists better understand and manipulate the human genome—the complete set of genes that all of us possess. Students also learn about the ethical concerns that some people have over how these technologies are being used today and how they may be used in the future. The lesson contains videos that feature scientists, doctors, patients, and ethicists, whose stories and opinions reveal a range of perspectives. The lesson concludes with a final assignment that asks students to weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks of genetic technologies.
As doctors and researchers continue to learn more about the relationships among genes, the environment, and diseases, they are making advances in predicting the likelihood of a person developing certain diseases as well as discovering innovations in the prevention and treatment of diseases. These are enhancing the notion of personalized medicine, which aims to customize an individual's health care by tailoring decisions and treatments based on his or her genetic information. The sequencing of the human genome was the first step in what many hope will be a new era in medicine. As in many medical advances, there are a number of ethical, legal, and social issues involved in personal genomics.
In this lesson, students explore some of the risks and benefits of gene-based medicine. They look at concerns related to genetic testing (which looks for particular genetic variations) and personal genome sequencing (which sequences the entire genome of an individual). Through videos and discussions, students learn about existing technologies for genetic testing and therapies. They also explore matters such as the emotional consequences of genetic testing, discrimination, and privacy issues. In small groups, students discuss scenarios and then share and analyze related opinions and concerns.