When Garry Zentil was well on his way to dropping 13 kilograms (30 pounds) this summer and feeling better than he had in years, he was offered a chance to peek into his medical future.
"Sure, why not?" the 49-year-old executive thought.
At 6 foot 4 and with hands the size of oven mitts, Mr. Zentil doesn't scare easily. So with a swab of his inner cheek, a nurse collected cells for an emerging brand of crystal-ball medicine -- a DNA test that promised to reveal his potential health risks and the illnesses that could one day befall the fit father of three.
All Mr. Zentil knew about genetics was what he had gleaned from movies or the television drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. But since a previous detection of his high insulin levels led him to a low-carbohydrate diet that helped him lose weight, he had cultivated a certain faith in medical testing.
"It crossed my mind that I might find something I didn't want to know," he said one recent morning in his North York office. "I figured I'd deal with it."
Scientists have long envisioned a future in which the power of genetics becomes a tool for prediction. Just as cloud formations can offer a hint of the storm to come, gene mutations can indicate a person's susceptibility or resistance to a range of conditions. Now, to the surprise of even some experts in the field, that future is here.
A private Toronto-area health-care clinic is offering a DNA test that screens the genes of healthy patients to assess their risk of developing everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis to obesity.
Scienta Health of Mississauga, Ont., has sold and administered the $2,000 test to several dozen Canadians, including Mr. Zentil. Their DNA samples are then sent for analysis to the Austrian company that developed the test. The clinic uses the results to help design a preventive health and lifestyle plan aimed at reducing those risks.
"Most of my clients are aged 45 to 50 and they know they are likely going to die of heart disease or cancer," said Scienta's founder Elaine Chin, "They want to know, 'Can you give me a hint as to which way it's going?' "
While it appears to be one of the first such tests on the Canadian market, several other firms in the United States and Europe are gearing up to read your genome. Among them are companies developing over-the-counter kits that allow people to swab themselves, mail off their cells and receive a forecast of their DNA's potential dangers by post.
Yet the more widely available these tests become, the more social, ethical and legal questions pile up: Just how sound is such genetic information, especially if it is subject to no external accreditation or quality control? What can or should an individual, or the public health system, do about conditions that may never materialize? And just who should have access to that information? Employers? Insurance companies?
"It's going to be something society will spend a lot of time discussing," predicts Bruce Waygood, co-ordinator of health research at the University of Saskatchewan. "The reality is that this is a service that is going to be in demand. We pay people to go and read our palms. We have a penchant for wanting to know what's in store for us. The genie is out of the bottle."
On a four-lane suburban strip near the Trillium Health Centre, where neon lights flash promises of fast health care -- Walk-In Ultra-Sounds! X-rays! -- Scienta Health hovers above it all in an office building set slightly back from the Queensway.
From the moment you walk in the door, it's all about service. An assistant shakes your hand, hangs up your coat, shows you to a sitting room of elegant Asian furniture and offers herbal tea. Newspaper articles decorate the walls describing Dr. Chin's sophisticated private-sector health-care approach that tries to slow or reverse the aging process with particular lifestyle tweaks and treatments.
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