You have likely heard and read about a family tendency for certain diseases. A propensity for some diseases is, in fact hereditary. That’s why in a routine medical examination you’re likely to be asked if any of your close relatives has had diabetes, or heart disease, or cancer.
For centuries, scientists have recognized that certain traits can be passed from parents to their offspring through genes. Genetics, the study of heredity, tells us that our genes carry the genetic code for various traits in the form of DNA. DNA directs the cells that make up our bodies how to behave. Genes determine not only inherited features such as eye color and height, but also the transmission of certain diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. While everyone has some chance of developing cancer, for example, the inheritance of some genes can place a person at significantly higher risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Alterations in the genetic code––known as mutations–– can predispose those who inherit them to developing certain diseases. Scientists have identified a number of genetic mutations that can cause different kinds of cancer. Simple blood tests, such as the one for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, can now be used to learn about a your genetic makeup, empowering you to make important choices and to take steps that may reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Some people have been afraid to be tested for genetic diseases for fear that the information discovered can be used to deny them insurance. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-233, 122 Stat. 881), also referred to as GINA, is a new Federal law that prohibits discrimination in health coverage and employment based on genetic information.
GINA generally will prohibit discrimination in health coverage and employment on the basis of genetic information. GINA, together with already existing nondiscrimination provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, generally prohibits health insurers or health plan administrators from requesting or requiring genetic information of an individual or the individual’s family members, or using it for decisions regarding coverage, rates, or preexisting conditions. The law also prohibits most employers from using genetic information for hiring, firing, or promotion decisions, and for any decisions regarding terms of employment.