Genomics gets personal for Duke professor

CorrespondentFebruary 22, 2010 

Misha Angrist is a professor at Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. In April 2007, he was one of the first 10 participants in the Personal Genome Project. His book, "Here is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics" (HarperCollins) is due out this fall. The Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What's the story behind your blog's name?

When I told a friend I was getting my genome sequenced, she said, "Why you? What makes you so special, Genome Boy?" I thought that was funny.

Q: Can you say what "personal genomics" means?

Personal genomics - to me - means people getting access to their own genomic and other biological information for any reason at all: health, ancestry or simply curiosity.

Q: What drives your interest in personal genomics? Is there a particular topic within the field that engages you the most?

I am fascinated by the emotional responses to it. A lot of physicians say, "No, it's too early, we're not ready, it will overwhelm the system..." That may be true, but it's here already. We need to deal with it.

Q: What do you think the greatest challenges will be for individuals in the future, as the technology makes accessing personal genomes more affordable?

There will be many. One will be logistical: How do we manage all of this data about ourselves? Another will be learning to think probabilistically: What does it mean to have a 35 percent lifetime risk of Type 2 diabetes? This gets at a larger question: How do we retrain ourselves not to view genes as destiny? They're clearly not - we are incredibly complex creatures affected by thousands of genes and an infinite number of environmental stimuli. But that's a hard sell, and as a consequence, genes have been marketed as destiny. We have to get beyond that.

Q: You also write fiction and nonfiction. Which medium do you prefer, and why?

Before I started my book on personal genomics, I'd have said that fiction is much harder. I've published a few short stories, but I have a cabinet full of abandoned attempts at a novel, all of which are quite awful. But now, having spent three years interviewing people and trying to tell a true story as well as I can, I kind of miss the pleasures of just making stuff up.

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