Human Genetic Testing and the Multiverse of Possibility

“They used to say that a child conceived in love has a
greater chance of happiness. They don’t say that anymore.”
— Vincent Freeman, Gattaca

8497791530_dac0d474e2Who needs runes, bones or tea leaves when you have BRCA blood tests?

Can you tell the future through hard science instead of tarot cards or psychic mediums? Perhaps.

One of the marvels of modern medicine — and the result of the sequencing of the human genome — means that anyone can spit into a petri dish, send it off to a lab and learn about the perfection (or imperfection) of the genes that lie at the heart of every cell in the body and make us who we are. Factor V Leiden, hemophilia, achrondoplasia, sickle cell, Tay-Sachs, Turner syndrome — all of these diseases can be traced back to mutations in our genetics.

What is happening now that we can see who we are and where we’re going so closely?

6003116733_94681b4034Baby Haise, your future is set in stone.

Concern mostly surrounds the genetic testing of unborn fetuses, which has created fears that mothers and fathers could create “designer babies” or choose to abort otherwise-viable fetuses who don’t fit their expectations or desires. Genetic testing has already stoked fears that genetically-imperfect people could, eugenically, become an underclass. (This fear is at the center of the 1997 film Gattaca.)

But genetic testing can also be a good tool to tell if you should be pre-emptively screening yourself for cancer. Did you know that adults are able participate in this augury, too?

Boulder, Colo.-based Sundance Diagnostics has created a genetic test to discover whether people treated with antidepressants may be more or less likely to commit suicide; because suicide and some mental illness tends to “run in the family,” many epidemiologists suspect a genetic base, although lived existence still counts for most of the reasoning that leads to a person ending his or her own life. What if Robin Williams had been warned about the possibility when he went on his own antidepressants? Could this help a counselor offer better assistance to a depressed person, or would it just give the patient further ammunition to think that there’s no other way out?

Home DNA tests can now be purchased on the Internet; with a cheek swab and $99 sent to a lab, people can figure out where they’re from, ethnicity-wise, and what genetic diseases they’re most susceptible to contracting. One reporter for Discover magazine discovered that she had a tendency towards Crohn’s disease and, on the way, met people who have discovered tendencies towards colorectal cancer and celiac disease. The results quickly led the reporter to significant anxiety over her condition, but didn’t change her final goal of increasing her exercise, fixing her diet, and reducing her stress. “While the results were sometimes conflicting, the advice was basically the same: Stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and control blood pressure. Something tells me I should be doing all these things anyway,” she said.

There’s already a pretty decent genetic test to predict cancer: get your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes tested through blood or saliva. According to the National Cancer Institute, these genes produce tumor-suppressing proteins, help repair damaged DNA and keep cell genetic material relatively stable. If the gene isn’t formed up to standards, cells are more prone to cancers — particularly, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and peritoneal cancer. Knowing that your BRCA genes have mutations can mean that you know you have to get screened for cancer more often as you grow older — it doesn’t mean that you will get cancer.

See, right now, a genetic test will only give you small window into a possible future — it is a predictor not of a single universe, but a multiverse of possibilities, a thousand “maybes” and “could bes.” While a test says that you might develop cervical or prostate cancer, what life actually throws at you might be a different story entirely. What happens when insurance companies start taking just one of those multiverses as gospel truth?

Sounds like a sci-fi story.

photo credit: k8947-1 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Our first clear view of Haise Baby Zero via photopin (license)

Short Film Alert: The Arborlight

“Garlic, herbs and rooster’s crow,
or far away the children go.”
— The Arborlight

thearborlightBrian Sutherland and Eden Campbell in “The Arborlight.”

How far would you go to save your child?

What would you do if you could not?

Those are the questions at the heart of The Arborlight, a breathtaking fairytale faith-versus-science story. Thomas and Liz’ young daughter, Elly, is fighting terminal tuberculosis, and although the doctor that attends to her is optimistic, Thomas grows more and more certain that Elly isn’t going to make it through. One day, while gathering flowers for his daughter’s bedside, he discovers a place that looks exactly like the fairy stories she loves so much, and Thomas finds he must choose between the approach of worldly medicine and the lure of something a little more magical…

The Arborlight is filmed beautifully using RED cameras, and despite the fairytale cottage and medieval costumes, Thomas and Liz feel like modern parents in a very modern struggle. Modern medicine has come a long way from the bloodletting and surgery-superstition that Thomas and Liz took as gospel truth, but people still die all the time from maladies doctors and medicines still can’t touch, and people still look for cures beyond what modern medicine can provide — miracle potions and mail-order cures, shamans and prayer healings. In a way, it’s tragic to watch Thomas and Liz make the decisions they make, because modern viewers know that they really have no choice, that the bloodletting provided by the plague doctor is ineffective and cruel, and that both choices are going to be heart-wrenching and unfair.

It reminds me of Anna Mayer‘s beautiful video above, about a young teen suffering from a condition that she knows is going to kill her, and the wrenching feeling about how unfair that is. I thought of Emily a lot while I watched The Arborlight. Modern society judges people who, upon not finding modern medicine sufficient, turn to a place of faith and unreason, but like Thomas and Liz tell us in The Arborlight, it’s a question we’re all going to have to face. Modern medicine will eventually fail. None of us will live forever. What are you going to do on the day? What will you believe? What would you turn to? Can any of us really even know until we, like Thomas, Elly and Liz, are facing it?

Do yourself a favor and watch The Arborlight, a film by Philip and Kevin Harvey, starring Brian Sutherland, Lisa Coronado, Eden Campbell and Russell Hodgkinson:

Watch a behind-the-scenes documentary on how they filmed using the Movi:

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Read the August Third Order story, “A Tomb For Demrick Fauston,” by Fred McGavran!

Are We Limiting God By Drawing A Line Between Faith And Science?

“Science is the slow revelation of God’s blueprint.”
(Bioshock Infinite, “God’s Blueprint,” Level: Fink Manufacturing, Date: April the 19th, 1908)”
Hattie Gerst

15434391345_fe610af410The word of God, interpreted differently by different faiths.

I have never seen religion and science as disparate. I’ve always seen them as different sides of the same coin, different ways to see a similar truth. I grew up in a Catholic tradition where the Bible was not literally translated but instead viewed through the lens of history, tradition and the knowledge that men and women can sometimes be wrong, but that God is never wrong. So, while the moral, ethical and religious content of the Bible is nothing but correct (Jesus died on a cross to save all humanity from original sin), certain other, more metaphorical things might be… open to interpretation. For example: did God really create the world in seven days?

While biblical prophets and writers had the essential truths of salvation encased in the sacred Scriptures, in other ways they were woefully misinformed. They didn’t know about quantum theory or the reality of space travel, or even that the planet was round or that there was a planet; they knew only the truths of their time, so that’s how they interpreted God’s words and message. The author of Genesis only had the reference of the sun rising and setting over the hills of Galilee; modern authors, of course, know about the infinite darknesses of the space between stars. Must we keep God’s “days” as the ancient Judeans did? Might we be we limiting the God of quantum theory and sharks living in underwater volcanoes by saying that he created the world in seven sunups to sundowns?

t1larg.tatooine.starwarsOr however many sunups and sundowns might count on Tattooine?

Must science be presented as so disparate from faith? Can’t we wonder at the mysteries of the new dropleton found at the Large Hadron Collider and praise God for his unfathomable mystery?

I wonder: In the future, when people look back at us, in which ways will they shake their heads and mutter: “But — they didn’t know any better?”

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photo credit: My reward is with Me. via photopin (license)
photo credit: Sacred Heart via photopin (license)