Saturday, August 13, 2011

What is Swimming in my Children's Gene Pool?

Courtesy Google Images

If you are a parent, do you ever wonder what you might have unwittingly passed along to your children when you were having them?

This is a question that bothers me a lot, because neither Justin nor I are blessed with the best genes for actually surviving on this planet. While I think we were lucky enough to pass along some good looks to all three of our children, there is also a large selection of diseases in our family tree, including but not limited to:
  • Cancer - skin, lung, kidney, rare sarcoma
  • Diabetes
  • High Cholesterol
  • Heart Disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Obesity
  • Mental Illness - Substance Abuse, Depression, Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
  • Enamel Defect of the Teeth
  • Poor Eyesight
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Autism
  • Asthma
  • Bringing lots of massively shedding animals into the house that either keep us from going to sleep or bark us awake repeatedly (okay, that's not a medical problem, sorry)
We seem to have drawn the proverbial ace of spades when it comes to diseases that can be passed along through our genes. My kids are not even adults yet and some of the things I listed are things they are actually dealing with already.

I have been doing a little bit of internet research on what the cause is of diseases such as bipolar disorder. The currently accepted theory seems to be that there is a genetic predisposition to a disease or disorder and then something in the environment triggers it; at least in the case of mental diseases and autism. Could that also be true of all of the other disorders I have listed?

For instance, one of my children already has high cholesterol and is borderline diabetic. The other two have neither of these (yet). All of my children inherited our poor eyesight and wear either contacts or glasses. The reflux disease that both Justin and I have has only manifested in one child consistently, except for a short period of time when my oldest son was having a little trouble with it that went away. We have no idea where the autism came from, except that in some of my research, I have discovered that there is a link between mothers with mood disorders and children with autism. I have no idea if this is true, but if so, I have unwittingly and unknowingly caused my son's autism. That's a hard fact to live with if it's true, but sadly, one that I can't make go away. It is what it is.

We have come to a point in our medical history where people are living longer with diseases that previously would have been fatal. My psychiatrist, his physician's assistant trainee, and I had a very interesting, scholarly discussion last week about the ethics of babies that are born prematurely and at what point in fetal development is it fair to the child that is born prematurely to save it. What is too early for the child to live a good quality of life? This opens a whole kettle of fish that I am not willing to get into, because I do not know the answer to that question. All I know is that we are saving babies that would not have lived 100 years ago and we have developed treatments that are allowing people to live with diseases well into old age that would previously have been deadly fairly quickly. Just look at how far we have come, for instance, in treating HIV/AIDS. People are now living with this disease, instead of dying from it, thanks to anti-viral medication.

The other day, I saw that there has been a breakthrough in the treatment of leukemia. Scientists apparently developed a method of gene therapy where they can make a person's own cells attack the cancer cells and kill them off. They only had a sample of three people, but two of them were completely cured and one of them had significant improvement. This is amazing and what Justin and I have been working toward with things like the St. Baldrick's event earlier this year that raised over $300,000 to find a cure for pediatric cancer. Could this mean that a cure for cancer is on the horizon and could it be in our lifetime? We can fervently hope so. Most cancer treatment at this point is extremely toxic and has lots of later side effects, but they are saving more and more people, so you have to weigh the risks versus the benefits. I will take nasty side effects if it means more time.

It is my fervent hope that by the time my children are well into their 20's or 30's, science will have found cures for all of the things that we might have passed along to them. I also hope that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on will have therapies available to them that we cannot even imagine to deal with anything that we have genetically passed along. I would love to see that list I wrote above be just a part of our family history that subsequent generations can look at and say, oh, that's really interesting. I'm so glad we don't have to deal with those things anymore!

And I also hope that my children will not breed any politicians because I think that politicians have their own sort of genetic defect that causes them to completely ruin a perfectly good country. So far, the politician gene seems to be one that we have escaped. But that is for another post.



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