John Bennett Jr. sat in a cushioned chair, stretched out his left arm and watched as Blanca Steffens filled a vial with his blood on a recent afternoon inside the clinical lab at AtlantiCare Physician Group Primary Care Plus in Northfield.
With just a little bit of that blood, researchers and geneticists with Geisinger Health’s MyCode project will be able to tell Bennett whether his DNA carries genetic markers for certain diseases and health conditions.
The field of genomics has grown by leaps and bounds, and the testing once reserved for a select few has become available on a large scale. Dubbed precision or predictive medicine, researchers hope to use genetic information to improve disease prevention, treatment and outcomes.
“Rather than waiting for people to get sick, we can identify risks in people earlier and may prevent them from getting sick,” said Andrew Faucett, director of policy and education in Geisinger’s Office of the Chief Scientific Officer. “It’s less expensive to keep someone healthy than it is to care for them sick.”
Pennsylvania-based Geisinger launched MyCode in 2014 across its system of heath providers and hospitals, and now works with Regeneron Genetics Center. MyCode came to AtlantiCare locations and patients one year after it merged with Geisinger in 2015.
Faucett, also a professor at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, said the program has enrolled more than 150,000 patients, more than 10,000 of whom are from AtlantiCare.
Officials say the program intends to eventually include 250,000 enrollees. DNA has been analyzed so far for about 60 percent of participants as of Aug. 1, MyCode reports show.
Bennett, 55, of Somers Point, had read about the rise of genetic testing in medicine and had a family member who had it done years ago, so he jumped at the chance to participate in MyCode when the opportunity came, he said.
“Anything to do to help with medical research and I’m in,” he said.
By collecting and analyzing genetic data from more than 150,000 people, Faucett said, researchers will be able to conduct comprehensive studies on how diseases can affect large populations.
For health providers and their patients, test results can provide information about a person’s risk of developing certain disorders, such as cancers or cardiovascular conditions. Results can lead to discussions about medical care decisions with doctors and genetic counselors.
Scientists with the National Human Genome Research Institute completed sequencing of the human genome, or the complete human set of genetic instructions, in April 2003.
Experts can now look at someone’s DNA to see if their genetic coding has irregularities. A gene change can confirm if a person already has a disease, may develop a disease or is at risk of passing along a genetic disorder to his or her children.