04/10/2008 05:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

DNA is No Longer Destiny

Soho has long been a place where you can discover the latest jeans. Now it's also a place where you can discover the latest in genes.

This week, Navigenics -- a leader in the blossoming new world of DNA profiling -- launched its service at a retail event in Soho. Al Gore was there on opening night to herald this transformative moment in prevention, personalized health and wellness. It's all made possible by those happy confluences that ignite revolutions: the mapping of the human genome, the development of more affordable gene-scanning chips, and the growing body of research which correlates SNPS (mutations in DNA, nature's subversive typos) to specific conditions that develop in the course of a lifetime.

Disclosure: Our firm handles the marketing and advertising for Navigenics and was involved in creating the event.

Navigenics will scan your genes; give you a "Health Compass" that sets out your lifetime risk factor versus the population for 18 different conditions (including breast and colon cancer, heart disease, diabetes and macular degeneration). You will also be assigned a Genetic Counselor, to patiently walk you through what those probabilities mean, and help you put those percentages, those insights into action.

Personal genomics changes the game of preventative medicine in a profound and no doubt enduring way. Essentially, patients and their physicians have been using the same diagnostic tools and strategies for generations. Sure, these tools have advanced -- digital scans make X-rays as blurry as the first shots from space in 1946, and the PSA test offers an earlier glimpse into prostate health than was available before -- but they are refinements on a theme.

As for family history, it's of limited utility, given the unpredictable, eccentric way that DNA flows into our cells across the millennia. So looking at our parents and grandparents and second cousins once-removed can give us a false sense of security -- consider that women with a family history of breast cancer make up only 5% to 7% of all cases -- or a misplaced aura of dread.

Further, with researchers around the world furiously looking for new correlations, your DNA will yield an ever-expanding trove of data that can be put to enormously valuable use by physicians and their patients.

And that's the whole point. The more insight you have into your genes and their inborn appetite for trouble down the road, the more you can do in terms of earlier diagnosis, lifestyle changes, and focusing your efforts on vulnerabilities where you have the greatest risk. Know your enemy.

Eventually, drugs will be personalized to; that's what the science of pharmacogenomics is all about, since our DNA determines how we metabolize, process, and react to drugs.

Navigenics is a health care example of that wickedly over-employed but occasionally useful concept of "consumer empowerment." We hear it in the media world, to describe a host of power shifts, from user-generated media to the multi-platform distribution of content. We hear it relentlessly in consumer marketing, where it ranges from user reviews (even Wal-Mart now invites them) to consumers conjuring their own Super Bowl commercials, to consumers collaborating with brands on new products.

Of course, in health care, consumer empowerment as a buzzword has been around for a while. It's at the heart of the so-called patient's rights movement, signaling a re-calibration of the doctor/patient or hospital/patient relationship. But the implications of personal genomics go far beyond that.

Once you've got the ability to look into your DNA, you become a version of your own super-hero, an eponymous Clark Kent, possessed (and blessed) with an amazing power to see. So rather than passively accept your genetic fate, you can step in and start rewriting the script. And believe me, there's a lot you can do. The old debate of nature versus nurture has been resolved in favor of both, and it's at the intersection of genetics and the environment where so much chronic disease arises.

Of course, change provokes resistance. Long-existing structures and relationships need to be re-considered in light of the fresh power and influence that genetic information arms consumers with. That's to be expected. The physician community is known to be change-resistant (and often for good reason.) Indeed, there hasn't been a single meaningful advance in health care that hasn't provoked some swirl of push-back, some kvetch, some howl, from one constituency or another.

But the proverbial march of science can't be stopped, particularly when so much is at stake. That's why a clutch of the most prestigious medical institutions are working with Navigenics, including the Mayo Clinic, who recently announced a survey to study the ways in which patients understand their Health Compass, and then take steps to reduce their genetic risks.

So if you're in New York and you've got some time before Navigenics closes up shop in Soho, head over to 76 Greene Street. There are some cool events, panel discussions and lectures as well. All of it focused on the difference between yesterday's world of generic health, and the promise of genetic health.