Berg quoted in NY Times, WRAL Tech Wire on genetic screening

As genetic testing increases in popularity, experts such as Jonathan Berg, MD, PhD, question the usefulness of screening disease risks for the general public until further research establishes best practices.

Berg quoted in NY Times, WRAL Tech Wire on genetic screening click to enlarge Jonathan Berg, MD, PhD

Jonathan Berg, MD, PhD, associate professor of genetics in the UNC School of Medicine, was quoted in an New York Times article about the popularity of genetic testing as an employee benefit. Here is an excerpt:

A federal advisory panel on evidence-based preventive medicine currently recommends against routine screening for certain harmful breast cancer mutations for women who do not have cancer or a family history of cancer. The group concluded that the net benefit of routine genetic screening for these women could range from minimal to potentially harmful.

“There is exactly no evidence that systematic screening of the general healthy population for rare genetic conditions will have a net benefit in terms of health outcomes,” said Dr. Jonathan Berg, an associate professor of genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In fact, most cancers are not the result of the hereditary mutations in single genes that these tests detect. Some experts cautioned that extending use of the tests to the broader population may lead some people of average risk to forgo recommended screening tests like colonoscopies. And they warned that it could also lead people to undergo unnecessary medical procedures, including going to the extreme of having surgery to remove their breasts.

“You could scare the living daylights out of people unnecessarily,” said Dr. Stephen J. Chanock, director of the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute.

The tone of caution in Berg’s comment in the Times article does not fully capture the enthusiasm he has for the potential of genomic screening in healthy individuals.

“This is actually a very promising approach that UNC has been at the forefront of exploring,” he said. “We simply need more systematic research to definitively establish the net health benefits and health economic value of this type of genomic screening before broad application in the general population.  It is a goal that we fully intend to continue working toward.”

Berg, who runs the NIH NCGENES 2 project and is a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, was also interviewed for an article on WRAL Tech Wire. Here’s an excerpt:

A growing number of Silicon Valley employers are offering genetic testing as a “cutting edge” benefit to employees, but a UNC-Chapel Hill genetics professor is not at all a fan of the practice.

“This is basically an uncontrolled experiment that is being done in healthy individuals, offering a genetic test that is clinically indicated for people with suspected cancer predisposition but far beyond the standard of care for the general population,” said Berg. “Companies seem to be offering this in order to be ‘cutting edge’ or to provide their employees with something that differentiates them from other employers but is probably exposing their employees to potential harms without providing adequate pre-testing informed consent.”

Dr. Berg has been deeply involved in genetics research and has been published in a variety of publications.

To be clear, Dr. Berg is NOT dismissive of benefits that can be gained from continuing genetic studies. But he also doesn’t understate the complexities and challenges of genome research.

Berg is a Yang Family Biomedical Scholar. You can read more about his work on newborn sequencing here.

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