Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Contraindication Station

The future is fractal. I said as much to the pre-election Health select committee considering the medicinal cannabis petition last year. The exact words were a path of "individuated medical treatments" when challenged on the "cannabis for everyone" question from, off memory, current Health Minister Tony Ryall.

While humans share an intolerance for obvious Kryptonites such as cyanide and arsenic, our individual mutations splinter into a myriad of pluses and negatives. I can eat as many peanuts as the next monkey, but don't give me penicillin. I once knew a girl who was allergic to bee stings and carried a hypodermic of adrenalin, another was diabetic and carried insulin.

A generation before mine, I would have been fed Alexander Fleming's bread mould as required, as it was better than any other medicine they had at their disposal. Tough luck on the side effects. Before adrenaline and the invention of the hypodermic, my old friend probably faced a life of seclusion or death by bee. It was just over a hundred years ago that snake oil salesmen still sold quack remedies for diabetes, as so little about the condition was understood.

And these are just some obvious examples. Feel free to supplant these with your own experiences. I never learned Latin well enough to pronounce the names of some of these concoctions, that only doctors, didgeridoo players and Tim Shadbolt can say in one go. But everyone learns to pronounce their own medicine when the need arises.

I say all this in preamble in order to provide some context in what might seem to be an imminent and apparent contradiction on the role of DNA for the public good. After all, earlier this month I beat a fairly loud drum about the police DNA database for alleged criminals and how bad it is. OK, are you prepared?

It's this fascinating little gizmo:

From a drop of saliva or cheek swab [this handheld device] can analyse DNA to tell if a patient has the right genetic fit for a particular drug. The Snip Doctor looks for known single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) - single letter changes in the genetic code - that can affect an individual's response to medical treatment.

This little thing, if it works as advertised, has the potential to diagnose reliably and more accurately than ever before. The potential to revolutionise treatment is huge. Until we can get all those doctors out of cosmetic surgery and back to doing something useful, this device could spread the load of monitoring patient conditions as well as, and here's the apparent contradiction, feed back into the cloud of medical knowledge.

Yes, that raises the prospect of some form of database. But one tempered by doctor-patient confidentiality and other (future?) relevant legal protections, as opposed to the police database scheme. The reasons for collection vary greatly too. A medical DNA database would provide phenomenal insight into the intricacies of pharmacological treatment to NZ's inhabitants.

Take, for example, Maori. Diseases foreign to their race came across with the immigrants in the 19th Century and ravaged their people. Generic overseas tests do not easily accommodate for our unique and complex genetic and environmental heritage. The more information that can be gathered and fed into the general knowledge, the more it can benefit the infirm.

Meantime, the jury is still out on the fate and use of Guthrie cards, according to the latest Privacy Commission newsletter:

The Privacy Commissioner has made a submission to the National Screening Unit (NSU) about the collection, retention and secondary use of the newborn bloodspot samples... The Privacy Commissioner also addressed the need for legislation to regulate secondary use of samples and ongoing governance. She said there were also concerns about the information that was currently available to new parents and the consent gathering process.
If you were born in NZ from 1970ish onwards, somewhere there's a card with your baby blood on it. That's a Guthrie card. What can it be used for? Well, that's a bit unclear. As you can tell from the above statement, the fate of this DNA-testable card of your quotable soul is still moot.

There is so much good possible, but also risks of grave social harm if abused. What do you reckon? Should the cops get your code before your doctor? What would you like done with your Guthrie card?