It long has been recognized that traits can be passed down from parents to offspring in humans, just as occurs with other species. But medical genetics – the scientific field that covers the diagnoses and management of heritable diseases – didn’t get its start until recently. Only in the past century or so have researchers devoted significant resources to better understanding the patterns of inheritance or syndromes that have a genetic cause.
Although this research has taken place around the world, the United States is well established as a leader in this field, say authors of an article published in the July 2017 issue of Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine.
This article covers the history of the field, demographics of genetic conditions, legislation that relates to genetic disease and its burdens and highlights a long list of American researchers who have genetic diseases named after them. The list, comprising 86 scientists in a diverse array of fields including pediatrics, pathology, dermatology and oncology, is a testament to the devotion of these researchers to understanding a specific condition or, sometimes, group of related conditions.
Their dedication, often spanning the entirety of their career, contributed to the wealth of knowledge now available that’s improved the outcomes of many individuals with these diseases, says article co-author Debra S. Regier, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric geneticist who is the director of education in the Rare Disease Institute at Children’s National Health System.
“Because these researchers spent their lives characterizing these disorders,” Dr. Regier says, “we can use that information when we find a child who fits the scheme of a particular disorder to tell families what they can expect – and in many instances – explain how best to treat them.”
Beyond tracking heritable disease traits through families, modern genomics also has led to the ability to recognize specific genes that cause various disorders, speeding the process of diagnosis and intervention.
“There are about 7,000 rare diseases, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start with patients because it’s unclear which one they have,” Dr. Regier says. “By doing genetic testing, we can give families information, offer a prognosis and start treatments that have helped children who came before them with the same genetic mutation.”
Dr. Regier speculates that U.S. leadership in this field is largely due to the presence of large academic centers that are devoted to the study of genetic disorders, like Children’s National. Such centers give researchers dedicated time and space to better understand genetic diseases, both on a basic and an applied level. Despite the country’s stature as a frontrunner in this research arena, the United States has a relatively small medical genetics community, which researchers can use to their advantage.
“If I find a child with a rare genetic disorder, I can call up the world expert on this condition to share and receive information,” Dr. Regier adds. “That’s relatively rare in science, but it happens all the time in our field because we’re so small.”
Although the United States has contributed to many medical genetics and genomic medicine advances that have helped patients worldwide, the history of the field in this country wasn’t always laudable, Dr. Regier says. The article also addresses the eugenics movement during the early 20th century. For example, in 1907, Indiana became the first state to enact involuntary sterilization legislation, an effort to remove “flawed” individuals from the gene pool that was followed by similar laws in several other states. In 1924, Virginia enacted a law that allowed eugenic sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927.
After atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, when the repercussions of these policies became more clear, these laws were gradually abolished.
More recent legislation, the article’s authors write, aims to protect individuals from discrimination for genetic disorders. Thus far, 35 states have laws on the books protecting against employment discrimination, and 48 states passed legislation against health insurance discrimination based on genetic information. Twenty-four states endorsed statutes that limit the use of genetic information for other types of insurance, including life, long-term care and disability.
The article is the first of a two-part series and was followed Nov. 26, 2017 by a second article addressing the current status of prenatal testing, reproductive options and reproductive law in the United States, as well as newborn screening, genetic services, rare disease registries, and education and training in genetics.
“We can take pride in our progress, while still acknowledging that we have a long way to go in this field,” Dr. Regier says.