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Experts discuss the promise of genomics

Two huge video screens overlooking the floor of Mayo Civic Center’s Taylor Arena showed a woman dressed as a fortune-teller gazing into a crystal ball and speaking to a man eager to hear about his future.

The woman told the man that he was going to be involved in a serious car accident. He responded by asking for details and about what he could do to prevent the calamity. Her craft, the fortune-teller explained, couldn’t supply details "but can only describe risks and possibilities."

The tongue-in-cheek video apparently intended to provoke thoughts about genomics among members of the audience, many of whom were high school students. But University of Minnesota law professor Susan Wolf, who was a member of a five-person panel of scientists and journalists at the arena Tuesday night, didn’t seem to appreciate the video.

"I HOPE that’s not what genomic medicine looks like to people," she said after the video ended, drawing laughter from the audience of several hundred people.

Her remarks opened an hour-long panel discussion, "Great Expectations: Making Informed Decisions in Individualized Medicine," about genomics, which many believe will lead to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

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The panel discussion was held on the second day of the three-day "Individualizing Medicine 2012" conference, hosted by Mayo Clinic’s Center for Individualized Medicine. Genomics experts from around the world are attending the conference, which ends today.

Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday" on National Public Radio, moderated the panel discussion. Among the other panelists were Ron Winslow, deputy medical editor of "The Wall Street Journal," and Erika Check Hayden, a reporter for the journal Nature.

Dr. Gianrico Farrugia, director of Mayo's Center for Individualized Medicine, was also on the panel.

"The technologies of genome sequencing have made tremendous strides over the past few years," he said in a statementmbefore the event. "The time needed to sequence and interpret whole genomes is no longer the seemingly insurmountable barrier it once was due to the use of these tools in the everyday care of our patients."

Farrugia said the Center for Individualized Medicine is attempting to build a clinical practice that delivers genomic medicine as part of routine care.

Wolf, in explaining her concern about the fortune-teller video, said genomics medicine is less about predicting a patient’s future and more about helping doctors make decisions about choices and doses of drugs. She also talked about the possibility that genomics will help cut costs in health care.

Journalists on the panel discussed privacy concerns, such as whether health insurance companies would be able to access people’s genomic data. Many people also fear where the science of genomics is headed, they said.

For institutions to waylay some of these concerns, "it’s important to be transparent with the public," Hayden said.

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Journalists also said that researchers and journalists should guard against reporting so much about success stories because they might raise false hopes.

The demand for genomic information is going to increase, Wolf said.

Farrugia’s advice to patients is to seek information on their own through sources such as social networking and medical websites and then carefully choose a health-care provider.

"Learn a lot, and then learn who to trust," he said.

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