World Federation of
Science Journalists

DNA testing available for British reporters

May 13, 2010 posted in Sci.Journalism
Only if they attend ABSW’s July conference

Science reporters worldwide grapple with the complexities of molecular biology – the DNA watershed and all that has followed since.

But reporters and editors in the U.K. will have an opportunity in July to get up close and personal with the knowledge available from genomics, the new “consumer” service that has emerged from DNA sequencing

The companies providing
the test kits
Something weird going on in whatever part of your DNA controls aging? Should you watch for signs of Alzheimer’s?

Is there a genetic signal for throat cancer, and do you really want to know whether you carry it?

The Association of British Science Writers has scheduled a session on “The Future of Genomics: A personal introduction” for its one-day conference at the Royal Society in London July 23. Conference-goers can apply for a chance to have their genome scanned for free, and then share the results – and their reaction to them – with colleagues.

The sharing is voluntary – nobody will have to talk if they don’t want to.

The conference is a direct descendent of the World Conference of Science Journalists in London in 2009, an experience that organizer Julie Clayton says was so “rejuvenating,” that the ABSW decided to repeat in miniature the 2009 event.

Clayton says the realization that journalists in the U.K. could pull off a world conference for 1,000 people over four days led them to believe that “we ought to be able to handle something for a few score people in one day.”

There was a desire to “keep the momentum going,” she says. “Even “jaded journalists didn’t want things to fall flat after that huge event.”

The genomics session was possible because the cost of sequencing a human genome has plummeted from hundreds of thousands of dollars to about $20,000 today. Alongside that, there has been an explosion of “genotyping” services on a smaller scale that scan your genome and interpret the results for a few hundred dollars.

It was time for journalists to get in on the action. Zoe McDougall, who speaks for Oxford Nanopore Technologies – the sponsor of the genotyping session – said in a phone interview her industry wants the ethical and social dimensions of DNA sequencing to be “well-debated at an early stage, having lived through the GM disaster.”

How better than to allow science journalists to take a peek into their own genome and find out what’s there, and how it feels to find out.

The ABSW reports that it has “personal genome testing kits for use by conference delegates and anyone registering for the conference will be asked if they want to enter the draw for a chance to be tested. Four journalistic DNA guinea pigs will be chosen.

Testing is straighforward. The delegates provide a cheek swab or spit into a bottle, send it off to the company that provided the kit, and wait about a month. Then they get an email with a password for each individual to download a for-your-eyes only report from the Nanopore Technologies website.

Then it will be up to the jouranlists to decide whether they are willing to share what they learned during a panel discussion.

McDougall cautions that these tests are not a scan of an individual’s entire genome – that’s too pricey, about $30,000. These are SNP tests – it means “single nucleotide polymorphism” – a particular site in a DNA sequence where variation is more common.

Test results can provide “palatable or unpalatable information, and analysis suggesting whether the person being tested can do anything about it,” McDougall says. But much of the time, “The results are equivalent to the information you get by standing on the bathroom scales or counting the number of cigarettes you smoked in a day.”

McDougall said the companies providing the test kits and interpreting the results always outline the limitations of the available data along with the individual reports.

The result with be a panel chaired by Mark Henderson of the Times of London. He will be joined by genomics company representatives, the journalists who have been genotyped, Daniel MacArthur (personal genomics blogger and geneticist) and Alison Hall who studies law and policy at the PHG Foundation, an international non-profit promoting reponsible medical applications of biological science.

In addition to the geneomics session, among much else, the conference will look at the East Anglia uproar from last year. Clayton, wearing her organizer hat two years running, said that much reporting on the leaked emails from climatologists at the university “massively exaggerated” whatever carelessness actually existed among the scientists.

The result was “a stong feeling that public trust in science has taken a nosedive. Journalists have a job to do to build up confidence,” she said. But they have to do so without being “cheerleaders.”

Other sessions at the ABSW July conference will cover connections between editors and freelancers, multiplatform reporting, statistics for journalists, peer review, and a hands-on session on podcasting.


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