Testing Fate

Catharine Wang seeks to empower patients amid the genetics-testing revolution

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As a grad student researching her master’s thesis at a Toronto clinic in the early 1990s, Catharine Wang remembers watching women being tested for the newly cloned BRCA-1 gene, a risk indicator for breast cancer. At the time, the genetic science was cutting edge and she saw patient upon patient unable to grasp the slew of radical information being thrown at them—about risks and probabilities. Some of them simply tuned out.

“That just reinforced my passion about doctor-patient communications issues and informed decision-making, and how can we support that,” says Wang, an associate professor of community health sciences.

Today, the genetics-testing market is booming, with private companies offering DNA tests for individuals at affordable prices. But it’s not one-size-fits-all, Wang cautions. And context is critical. Multiple factors, such as lifestyle and environment, enter into the risk equation, not just hereditary probabilities, which more often than not land in a gray area. Wang’s ongoing research, funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), is examining methods to effectively communicate genetic and environmental risk information for public health promotion and disease prevention.

“The rapid pace at which we’re understanding the genetic causes of human diseases is mind-boggling,” she says. “It’s almost like information overload. If we can empower patients to be better communicators, they can take control over their health.”