Several methods can be used for genetic testing:
Great progress has been made in mapping the human genome. Genetic researchers are now learning more about how each gene works and what it does. They also study the role that variations in genes play in disease. Genetic researchers are working to identify the genetic and environmental causes of common illnesses such as asthma, arthritis and Alzheimer disease. The results of such studies will lead to many advances in disease prevention and treatment.
Genetic testing is voluntary. Because testing has benefits as well as limitations and risks, the decision about whether to be tested is a personal and complex one. A geneticist or genetic counselor can help by providing information about the pros and cons of the test and discussing the social and emotional aspects of testing.
Genetic testing can provide information about a person's genes and chromosomes. Available types of testing include:
Newborn screening is used just after birth to identify genetic disorders that can be treated early in life. Millions of babies are tested each year in the United States. All states currently test infants for phenylketonuria (a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability if left untreated) and congenital hypothyroidism (a disorder of the thyroid gland). Most states also test for other genetic disorders.
Diagnostic testing is used to identify or rule out a specific genetic or chromosomal condition. In many cases, genetic testing is used to confirm a diagnosis when a particular condition is suspected based on physical signs and symptoms. Diagnostic testing can be performed before birth or at any time during a person's life, but is not available for all genes or all genetic conditions. The results of a diagnostic test can influence a person's choices about health care and the management of the disorder.
Carrier testing is used to identify people who carry one copy of a gene mutation that, when present in two copies, causes a genetic disorder. This type of testing is offered to individuals who have a family history of a genetic disorder and to people in certain ethnic groups with an increased risk of specific genetic conditions. If both parents are tested, the test can provide information about a couple's risk of having a child with a genetic condition.
Prenatal testing is used to detect changes in a fetus's genes or chromosomes before birth. This type of testing is offered during pregnancy if there is an increased risk that the baby will have a genetic or chromosomal disorder. In some cases, prenatal testing can lessen a couple's uncertainty or help them make decisions about a pregnancy. It cannot identify all possible inherited disorders and birth defects, however.
Preimplantation testing, also called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), is a specialized technique that can reduce the risk of having a child with a particular genetic or chromosomal disorder. It is used to detect genetic changes in embryos that were created using assisted reproductive techniques such as in-vitro fertilization. In-vitro fertilization involves removing egg cells from a woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm cells outside the body. To perform preimplantation testing, a small number of cells are taken from these embryos and tested for certain genetic changes. Only embryos without these changes are implanted in the uterus to initiate a pregnancy.
Predictive and presymptomatic types of testing are used to detect gene mutations associated with disorders that appear after birth, often later in life. These tests can be helpful to people who have a family member with a genetic disorder, but who have no features of the disorder themselves at the time of testing. Predictive testing can identify mutations that increase a person's risk of developing disorders with a genetic basis, such as certain types of cancer. Presymptomatic testing can determine whether a person will develop a genetic disorder, such as hereditary hemochromatosis (an iron overload disorder), before any signs or symptoms appear. The results of predictive and presymptomatic testing can provide information about a person’s risk of developing a specific disorder and help with making decisions about medical care.
Forensic testing uses DNA sequences to identify an individual for legal purposes. Unlike the tests described above, forensic testing is not used to detect gene mutations associated with disease. This type of testing can identify crime or catastrophe victims, rule out or implicate a crime suspect, or establish biological relationships between people (for example, paternity).
Once a person decides to proceed with genetic testing, a medical geneticist, primary care doctor, specialist, or nurse practitioner can order the test. Genetic testing is often done as part of a genetic consultation. Genetic tests are performed on a sample of blood, hair, skin, amniotic fluid (the fluid that surrounds a fetus during pregnancy), or other tissue. For example, a procedure called a buccal smear uses a small brush or cotton swab to collect a sample of cells from the inside surface of the cheek.
The sample is sent to a laboratory where technicians look for specific changes in chromosomes, DNA, or proteins, depending on the suspected disorder. The laboratory reports the test results in writing to a person's doctor or genetic counselor, or directly to the patient if requested. Newborn screening tests are done on a small blood sample, which is taken by pricking the baby's heel. Unlike other types of genetic testing, a parent will usually only receive the result if it is positive. If the test result is positive, additional testing is needed to determine whether the baby has a genetic disorder. Before a person has a genetic test, it is important that he or she understands the testing procedure, the benefits and limitations of the test, and the possible consequences of the test results. The process of educating a person about the test and obtaining permission is called informed consent.
Genetic testing has potential benefits whether the results are positive or negative for a gene mutation. Test results can provide a sense of relief from uncertainty and help people make informed decisions about managing their health care. For example, a negative result can eliminate the need for unnecessary checkups and screening tests in some cases. A positive result can direct a person toward available prevention, monitoring, and treatment options. Some test results can also help people make decisions about having children. Newborn screening can identify genetic disorders early in life so treatment can be started as early as possible.
A gene patent is the exclusive rights to a specific sequence of DNA (a gene) given by a government to the individual, organization, or corporation who claims to have first identified the gene. Once granted a gene patent, the holder of the patent dictates how the gene can be used, in both commercial settings, such as clinical genetic testing, and in noncommercial settings, including research, for 20 years from the date of the patent. Gene patents have often resulted in companies having sole ownership of genetic testing for patented genes.
On June 13, 2013, in the case of the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that human genes cannot be patented in the U.S. because DNA is a "product of nature." The Court decided that because nothing new is created when discovering a gene, there is no intellectual property to protect, so patents cannot be granted. Prior to this ruling, more than 4,300 human genes were patented. The Supreme Court's decision invalidated those gene patents, making the genes accessible for research and for commercial genetic testing.
DNA can be manipulated in the laboratory. Restriction enzymes are commonly used enzymes that cut DNA at specific sequences, producing predictable fragments of DNA
The Supreme Court's ruling did allow that DNA manipulated in a lab is eligible to be patented because DNA sequences altered by humans are not found in nature. The Court specifically mentioned the ability to patent a type of DNA known as complementary DNA (cDNA). This synthetic DNA is produced from the molecule that serves as the instructions for making proteins (called messenger RNA)
The main differences between clinical genetic testing and research testing are the purpose of the test and who receives the results. The goals of research testing include finding unknown genes, learning how genes work, developing tests for future clinical use, and advancing our understanding of genetic conditions. The results of testing done as part of a research study are usually not available to patients or their healthcare providers. Clinical testing, on the other hand, is done to find out about an inherited disorder in an individual patient or family. People receive the results of a clinical test and can use them to help them make decisions about medical care or reproductive issues.
DNA can also be amplified using a procedure called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).By using specific short sequences of DNA, PCR can isolate and exponentially amplify a targeted region of DNA. Because it can amplify from extremely small amounts of DNA, PCR is also often used to detect the presence of specific DNA sequences.
It is important for people considering genetic testing to know whether the test is available on a clinical or research basis. Clinical and research testing both involve a process of informed consent in which patients learn about the testing procedure, the risks and benefits of the test, and the potential consequences of testing.
Determining the order of DNA building blocks (nucleotides) in an individual's genetic code, called DNA sequencing, has advanced the study of genetics and is one technique used to test for genetic disorders. Two methods, whole exome sequencing and whole genome sequencing, are increasingly used in healthcare and research to identify genetic variations; both methods rely on new technologies that allow rapid sequencing of large amounts of DNA. These approaches are known as next-generation sequencing (or next-gen sequencing).
The original sequencing technology, called Sanger sequencing (named after the scientist who developed it, Frederick Sanger), was a breakthrough that helped scientists determine the human genetic code, but it is time-consuming and expensive. The Sanger method has been automated to make it faster and is still used in laboratories today to sequence short pieces of DNA, but it would take years to sequence all of a person's DNA (known as the person's genome). Next-generation sequencing has sped up the process (taking only days to weeks to sequence a human genome) while reducing the cost.
Next-generation genomic technologies allow clinicians and biomedical researchers to drastically increase the amount of genomic data collected on large study populations.When combined with new informatics approaches that integrate many kinds of data with genomic data in disease research, this allows researchers to better understand the genetic bases of drug response and disease.
With next-generation sequencing, it is now feasible to sequence large amounts of DNA, for instance all the pieces of an individual's DNA that provide instructions for making proteins. These pieces, called exons, are thought to make up 1 percent of a person's genome. Together, all the exons in a genome are known as the exome, and the method of sequencing them is known as whole exome sequencing. This method allows variations in the protein-coding region of any gene to be identified, rather than in only a select few genes. Because most known mutations that cause disease occur in exons, whole exome sequencing is thought to be an efficient method to identify possible disease-causing mutations.
Researchers have found that DNA variations outside the exons can affect gene activity and protein production and lead to genetic disorders--variations that whole exome sequencing would miss. Another method, called whole genome sequencing, determines the order of all the nucleotides in an individual's DNA and can determine variations in any part of the genome. While many more genetic changes can be identified with whole exome and whole genome sequencing than with select gene sequencing, the significance of much of this information is unknown. Because not all genetic changes affect health, it is difficult to know whether identified variants are involved in the condition of interest. Sometimes, an identified variant is associated with a different genetic disorder that has not yet been diagnosed (these are called incidental or secondary findings). In addition to being used in the clinic, whole exome and whole genome sequencing are valuable methods for researchers. Continued study of exome and genome sequences can help determine whether new genetic variations are associated with health conditions, which will aid disease diagnosis in the future.
Medical genetics is the branch of medicine that involves the diagnosis and management of hereditary disorders. Medical genetics differs from human genetics in that human genetics is a field of scientific research that may or may not apply to medicine, while medical genetics refers to the application of genetics to medical care. For example, research on the causes and inheritance of genetic disorders would be considered within both human genetics and medical genetics, while the diagnosis, management, and counselling people with genetic disorders would be considered part of medical genetics.
Secondary findings are genetic test results that provide information about changes (variants) in a gene unrelated to the primary purpose for the testing. When a clinician orders a genetic test to discover the genetic cause of a particular condition, the test will often sequence one or a few genes that seem most likely to be associated with that individual’s set of signs and symptoms. However, if the individual’s signs and symptoms do not have an obvious genetic cause, a clinician might order a test that sequences all of the pieces of an individual's DNA that provide instructions for making proteins (called an exome) or a test that sequences all of an individual’s DNA building blocks (nucleotides), called a genome. These tests are called whole exome sequencing and whole genome sequencing, respectively.
Many more genetic changes can be identified with whole exome and whole genome sequencing than by sequencing just one or a few genes. Sometimes, testing finds a variant that is associated with a condition other than the one for which testing was originally indicated. This is called a secondary finding. Some individuals with a secondary finding may not yet have any of the symptoms associated with the condition, but may be at risk of developing it later in life. For example, a person with a variant in the BRCA1 gene, which is associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, may not have developed cancer. Other individuals with secondary findings may have a known medical condition, such as extremely high cholesterol, but receive results that indicate a genetic cause for that condition, such as a variant in the LDLR gene.
Conservationists can use the information gathered by genomic sequencing in order to better evaluate genetic factors key to species conservation, such as the genetic diversity of a population or whether an individual is heterozygous for a recessive inherited genetic disorder.
By using genomic data to evaluate the effects of evolutionary processes and to detect patterns in variation throughout a given population, conservationists can formulate plans to aid a given species without as many variables left unknown as those unaddressed by standard genetic approaches.
In 2013 (and again in 2017), the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) recommended that all labs performing whole exome and whole genome sequencing tests include the reporting of secondary findings, in addition to any variants that are found related to the primary purpose of the testing. The ACMG proposed a list of 59 genes that are associated with a variety of conditions, from cancer to heart disease. The 59 genes for which secondary findings are reported were chosen because they are associated with conditions that have a definable set of clinical features, the possibility of early diagnosis, a reliable clinical genetic test, and effective intervention or treatment. The goal of reporting these secondary findings to an individual is to provide medical benefit by preventing or better managing health conditions.
Medical genetics encompasses many different areas, including clinical practice of physicians, genetic counselors, and nutritionists, clinical diagnostic laboratory activities, and research into the causes and inheritance of genetic disorders.
Examples of conditions that fall within the scope of medical genetics include birth defects and dysmorphology, mental retardation, autism, mitochondrial disorders, skeletal dysplasia, connective tissue disorders, cancer genetics, teratogens, and prenatal diagnosis. Medical genetics is increasingly becoming relevant to many common diseases. Overlaps with other medical specialties are beginning to emerge, as recent advances in genetics are revealing etiologies for neurologic, endocrine, cardiovascular, pulmonary, ophthalmologic, renal, psychiatric, and dermatologic conditions. The variants that are reported are known to cause disease. Variants of unknown significance, whose involvement in disease at the current time is unclear, are not reported. The information provided by secondary findings can be very important because it may help prevent a disease from occurring or guide the management of signs and symptoms if the disease develops or is already present. However, as with any type of medical diagnosis, the news of an unexpected potential health problem may lead to additional health costs and stress for individuals and their families. On the basis of secondary findings, additional testing to confirm results, ongoing screening tests, or preventive care may be advised. Individuals receiving whole exome or whole genome sequencing can choose to “opt out” of analysis of the 59 secondary finding genes and not receive variant results. As whole exome and whole genome sequencing become more common, it is important for individuals to understand what type of information they may learn and how it can impact their medical care.