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GW Faculty Bring Genomics to the Public Square

Cost. Privacy. Knowledge. These were some of the words audience members produced when asked about barriers to getting a genetic test done.

The question was posed during the first of four sessions of a new series called Genomics in the Public Square, sponsored by the George Washington University (GW) Seminars program through the Office of the Provost. The new university seminar series, created by Shawneequa Callier, JD, associate professor of clinical research and leadership at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), and Sonia Suter, JD, John and Inge Stafford Faculty Research Professor at GW Law, addresses the promise of genomic and precision medicine and the challenges they present.

During the first session, “Genomic Literacy, Communication, and Education,” experts discussed the basics of genetic testing, how the public can interpret direct-to-consumer genomic tests, and how to develop a society better versed in genomics as the technology modernizes and becomes more accessible.

With the rise of commercial DNA testing sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, consumers question the validity of the health results they yield and believe that for truly accurate results they must pay a higher dollar amount.

The fact is, “genetic testing is cheaper and contains more information than ever before,” said Callier. “But that information needs to be assessed and analyzed, and the cost of interpretation and counseling is not cheap.”

Carla Easter, PhD, chief of the education and community involvement branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, discussed how her team is trying to understand how and where students are getting their information on genetics.

“For most people, their exposure to genetics is going to be in the classroom,” Easter said. “When we start to talk about direct-to-consumer testing … we want students to know the difference between whole genome sequencing and [single nucleotide polymorphisms].”

Much of the session discussed the impacts of genetic mutations on an individual’s risk for cancer and how genetic testing can help to identify important mutations and guide the development of a treatment plan.

“When we are doing genetic testing, what the labs are doing they are looking at somebody’s DNA and trying to see if there are any differences in the code that you wouldn’t expect to see and if any of these differences might be associated with health problems,” said Tara Biagi, MS, genetic counselor at the GW Medical Faculty Associates (MFA). “If we know that somebody is at an increased risk, because they have a genetic mutation, there are things we are going to want to do differently for them.”

Participants also had the opportunity to engage in discussion with the panelists, including Charles Macri, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at SMHS; Elizabeth Stark, MS, genetic counselor at the GW MFA; Christine Teal, MD, director of the GW Breast Center; and Michael Rackover, PA, an adjunct faculty member at Thomas Jefferson University.

The remaining three sessions will be held during the spring semester and will cover race, genomics, and health disparities; reproductive medicine and genomics; and gene therapy, genetic engineering, and precision medicine.