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Physicians get information on genetics from Whitehead panel

Question 1: A 25-year-old woman who is new to your practice informs you that she is at 50-50 risk for having inherited the gene that causes Huntington's disease. How do you help her?

Question 2: A 45-year-old man in good health recently lost his 75-year-old father to complications due to Alzheimer's disease. He asks you to order a genetic test to determine his apoE4 status. How do you manage this?

Most gatherings at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research focus on basic science questions about the structure of molecules or new ideas in cell biology, but, as indicated by the questions above, one recent program had a very different perspective. The Whitehead Task Force on Genetic Testing, Privacy and Public Policy co-sponsored a continuing education course for physicians in April titled "Genetics of Common Diseases: A Program for Practicing Physicians."

Organized by David Page, Whitehead member and associate professor of biology, and Dr. Philip Reilly, executive director of the Shriver Center for Mental Retardation, the course covered topics ranging from the goals and achievements of the Human Genome Project to office-practice dilemmas in genetics.

"Preparing this program was tremendously exciting for us," said Professor Page, who is also an associate investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "Over the past four years, the Whitehead Institute has made a major commitment to helping others understand the rapid pace of advances in human genetics and their implications for society."

Professor Page is chair of the Whitehead Task Force on Genetic Testing, which has organized more than two dozen educational programs for business leaders, judges, lawyers, legislators, students and teachers. The course for physicians, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) and the Shriver Center, was designed to give physicians a preview of the impact of new genetic technologies on medicine in the decades ahead.

In addition to Drs. Page and Reilly, the speakers included Dr. Judy E. Garber of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who spoke on genetic testing and cancer, and Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier of Beth Israel Hospital, who discussed genetics, diabetes and obesity. Dr. Marylou Buyse, vice president of the MMS, served as moderator.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 30, 1997.

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