Cover Story

In April 2003, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, made an astonishing announcement: The 3 billion letters of the human genome had been sequenced. Thanks to an international, 13-year effort to identify the 3-billion base pairs that make up human DNA, we could, for the first time, read our own complete instruction manual, said Collins, then head of the Human Genome Project, a joint project of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy.

At the opening session of APA's Annual Convention in Toronto, Aug. 6–9, Collins will reflect on that milestone and provide insight into the way genetics is transforming health care—and how psychologists can help shape that future.

Since the mapping of the human genome, there's been an explosion of research into the genetic risk factors of disease, says Collins. Researchers have found hundreds of genes that put people at risk for cancer, heart disease, obesity, blindness, bipolar disease, depression, autism and ADHD. In the future, genetic testing could revolutionize health care, allowing health-care providers to tailor treatments to a person's particular genetic makeup.

However, genetic breakthroughs have, thus far, outpaced government regulation, Collins says.

"It's a classic example of the science getting ahead of public policy," he says. "Health-care providers have been bypassed and testing companies are marketing directly to individuals."

For as little as $400, people can have their DNA screened by private labs for a variety of risk factors, Collins says. And there's no guarantee these companies are using scientifically valid tests—as no government agency oversees them. Even when such tests turn up solid results, many physicians don't know how to interpret genetic information and make practical use of it, says Collins.

Psychologists can help fill that gap by investigating the ways that people internalize information about their genetic propensity for disease, and research how it affects their sense of well being and their health behaviors, says Collins.

"Psychologists, with their training, could be helpful in putting together an agenda to achieve the mainstreaming of this new kind of health care," he says.

—S. Dingfelder

Collins's will give his keynote address at 5 p.m., Aug. 6.