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On The Hot Seat

'Experimental Man' tests modern medicine

(Wiqan Ang for The Boston Globe)
March 29, 2009
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David Ewing Duncan, a biotech writer and correspondent for public radio's "Biotech Nation" program, took on another role for his seventh book - human guinea pig. Duncan, who lives in San Francisco, tested himself for everything from genetic defects to toxins. Duncan, who is scheduled to speak at Harvard Medical School on April 9, sat down with Globe reporter Todd Wallack to talk about his new book "Experimental Man" and the biotechnology industry.

How many tests did you get for your book?

Probably close to 200. I had multiple genetic tests - not a full genome scan, though that is in the workings right now. Three-hundred and twenty chemicals inside of my body were tested. Twenty-two hours in the MRI. Several body scans.

How much do those tests normally cost?

A minimum of $150,000. And if and when I get my genome scanned that could be as much as $350,000, depending on how expensive it is to get my genome scanned at the time. The prices are going down all the time.

Did you volunteer for clinical trials in college to make extra money?

No, I actually had very little interest in getting myself tested personally. This was done as a writer trying to understand this brave new world of medical testing. I come from a very healthy family. I would be in the category of people who like to be healthy, but don't worry about their health.

Any results surprise you?

The chemical toxins were a bit frightening that they were even in me. I am pretty average or slightly above average for most of the chemicals, except for a couple, (such as) flame retardants. I have 12 times the national mean. Apparently, that may have come from all the time I spent in airplanes, which are drenched in flame retardants. That makes me pause, although there is no evidence that even at those levels it causes me any harm.

Did any tests prompt you to change your behavior?

It's all pretty new science. I did get some results. Turns out that I have a pretty high risk for a heart attack. If I gain a pound a year, I have a 70 percent chance of a heart attack in 20 years. If I stay at a stable weight, I have a 2 percent chance.

Did you change your diet?

I saw a nutritionist. I thought I had a healthy diet, but I have a healthier one now. I lost 10 pounds. Mostly, I reduced some hidden sugars.

What do you think of the boom in personal genetic testing companies?

I find it fascinating. I think it is important that it is being discussed in a consumer context, but I don't think much of the information is ready for individuals. The science simply isn't there. I think people have to be very careful. I got three different results from three different websites - high, medium, and low risk factor for heart attack. If you are comparison shopping there, that's a little confusing.

Are they scams?

I don't think they are scamming people. They are pretty upfront with the fact that this is preliminary information that will get better over time. But as a consumer, you need to understand that if they tell you have a 1.7 percent chance of having a heart attack, that is one tiny bit of information. You should consider a lot of other factors, and it probably doesn't mean a lot.

Do you recommend any tests?

Most of the tests are somewhat futuristic. But something like a mercury test (is useful). I did a fish gorge - I went out and caught a halibut for lunch and bought a swordfish for dinner - then did a before and after blood test. I spiked from 4 parts per billion to more than 13. The EPA threshold is 5.8. I think a mercury test is relatively cheap and that is one you can take. But as long as you understand the genetic tests, I don't think there is any problem with taking it. Now if you have a serious heredity issue, that's a different story. That's a very good, important test for certain cancers or Huntington's disease.

You first had your genome sequenced eight years ago. How much has changed?

The technology has progressed extraordinarily fast. A full sequencing of a genome, even two or three years ago, cost close to $1 million. It dropped down to $350,000, $100,000, and now there is a company saying it can do it for $5,000. The Human Genome Project, by the way, cost $2.7 billion for the first one. So you've gone down in less than a decade from billions to thousands of dollars. That's pretty amazing.

How did you start writing about biotech?

I started off actually writing about healthcare in the early '90s. Then I morphed from a healthcare writer to biotech, probably because I got tired of writing the same healthcare stories over and over again - how our system is not functioning very well.

Anything you wished I had asked? One of the major stories out of the book is something I am calling envirogenetics. For the first time ever, in a single person, I have taken the research available, which isn't much, and tried to do a sketchy profile of my genetic variations and sensitivities to certain environmental toxins, like mercury. It's the real future, not only of diagnostic testing, but medicine itself - when you tie in these environmental factors.

Is this book going to make readers afraid of the environment?

A little bit. I'm not sure that is a horrible thing.

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