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DNA and Your Personal Health — Is Too Much Knowledge Good?

24 Jan

In the coming era of consumer genetics, your DNA will have much to tell you about the biological bases of your health, your physique and even your personality. But will this knowledge really amount to self-knowledge? asks Steven Pinker in his article My Genome, My Self, which appeared in the January 11, 2009 issue of the Sunday New York Times.

We've entered the age of personal genomics — where Pinker says "the plunging cost
of genome sequencing — will soon give people an unprecedented
opportunity to contemplate their own biological and even psychological
makeups".  For example, 23andMe provides
a genetic report card and directs customers to a web page which
displays risk factors for 14 diseases
and 10 traits. This page also provides links additional diseases and
traits which according to Pinker, have iffier scientific substantiation.

This latest "do it yourself genomics" trend coincides with the new promise of personalized medicine – where drugs are being tailored to an individual's genetic makeup.  The downside to this trend ranges from dubious companies which prey on hypochondriacs, to insurance and ethical isues.

For now, the jury is out on the benefits of personal genomics. I like Pinker's concluding thoughts:

So if you are bitten by scientific or personal curiosity and can think
in probabilities, by all means enjoy the fruits of personal genomics.
But if you want to know whether you are at risk for high cholesterol, have your cholesterol measured; if you want to know whether you are good at math, take a math test.

The Internet is accelerating biomedical progress in understanding and treating disease. Personally, I believe in the potential of services like 23andme — it empowers individuals to take control of their medical destinies and enables them to create virtual cohorts for clinical research and trials.  With tools like these, personalized medicine will evolve even faster.

The New Era of Personal Charity

27 Dec

In the  post-Madoff  meltdown, is the face of philanthropy changing? Lucette Lagnado's thinks maybe so according to her  article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal"When the Big Spenders Fail, Who Will Save Jewish Charity?" Ms Lagnado points out that over the past two decades, Jewish charities were receiving more money, but from fewer donors. But today she says,  this trend might reverse itself– funding may go from the hands of the few to the power of many –what she calls "communal philanthropy" — and if that's the case, she doesn't think that's so bad. 

Here's my favorite quote from the article: 

"…in our post-Madoff universe I find myself longing for tzedakah,  or personal charity, that took place before the rise of the uber-Jewish foundations and zillionaire philanthropists…It would be lovely to see the return of little checks — the donations everyone could afford to give and often did…"

Are we moving to a Web 2.0 model of giving? I immediately thought of Facebook's "Groups" and "Causes" enabling millions of members around the world — of all types of financial means — to join and contribute to causes and charities they care most about.   The Defeat Dementia Facebook Group,   for example, connects caregivers, family, friends, and others who support one another in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, CJD and FTD.   The New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care Group  helps support the underserved ill in NYC through chaplaincy work and training, contemplative care educational retreats, and outreach programs. Both are notable groups — please join.

Hoping that each one of us gives back in some way big or small in the New Year ahead.

Microsoft Examines Causes of ‘Cyberchondria’

28 Nov

A new survey from Microsoft  suggests that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them. John Markoff reported on the study in the November 25 issue of The New York Times.    Microsoft's goal is to position its search service as a reliable health advisor.  According to Ryen White and Eric Horvitz, the AI researchers who conducted the research, "directly tackling cyberchondria is an opportunity to leverage readily-available expertise in the information-retrieval and medical informatics communities in areas such as document ranking, user modeling, machine learning, and user interface design for the direct benefit of the many people turning to the Web to interpret common medical symptoms."