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Gene match outshines stars
- Couples opt for genetic counselling before marriage

Bangalore, Nov. 16: Ask starry-eyed GeNext youngsters planning to get hitched if they’ve got their stars matched. Chances are they’ll say ‘no, not really, that’s passe, but we’ve got our genes matched!’

Thirty-year-old garment designer Arathi Gopalaswamy is due to marry this month but refuses to finalise a date before the results of a chromosomal analysis are out. One of her relatives has a speech and hearing problem and she and her fiance are keen to know what “percentage of risk they are carrying, if at all”.

“We did not go to an astrologer as astrology and stars are not what matter, but genetic compatibility. Matching of genes is more important than matching horoscopes,” says Arathi, her fiance (also her cousin) in tow.

Genetic counselling and genetic profiling, both new-age mantras, are fast catching on. And Bangalore, which already has the distinction of being India’s Silicon Valley, seems to be taking the lead.

Statistics available with leading medical institutions show that more and more couples planning to marry or have babies are seeking such advice. Many who come for counselling also get their genetic profiles made.

According to figures available with Manipal Medical Hospital and St. John’s Medical College, the number of people going in for genetic counselling has gone up 10 times in the last two years. “On an average, we have had about 1,500 couples who go in for genetic counselling in the past two years. Before that, we had hardly 100 people coming for this type of counselling,” says Sridevi Hegde, clinical geneticist at Manipal hospital.

But doctors and researchers say couples going in for intra-family marriages are the ones keen on genetic counselling. With a large number of consanguineous marriages happening in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the trend is growing in south India.

Case studies by geneticists have pointed out that babies born of consanguineous marriages are more susceptible to Down’s syndrome, thalassaemia, mental retardation and autism. “Recent advancements in the study of genomes and the wide publicity it has received have contributed to greater awareness about these maladies and their causes, leading to growing interest in genetic counselling,” says Hegde.

She adds that the practice is helping prevent genetic diseases. “The normal procedure is to look at the family history for mental and genetic diseases,” says Manorama Thomas, former chief of the genetic department at St. Johns Medical College. “If we find incidences of abnormality, we advise against marriage.”

Genetic counselling involves making a clinical diagnosis by studying the history of the couple followed by chromosomal analysis, a procedure that takes about two weeks. In cases where emergency gene profiling is required, blood samples are flown to Delhi’s Sir Gangaram hospital, the only centre where it is comprehensively done.

“Couples looking beyond horoscopes and astrology and adopting gene profiling is a very good trend. This science (genetics) produces tangible results,” Sridevi says.

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