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Redefining Disease? The Nosologic Implications of Molecular Genetic Knowledge

How will developments in genetic knowledge affect the classification of disease? Leaders in genetics have suggested that knowledge of the role of genes in disease can determine nosology. Diseases might be defined by genotype, thus avoiding the limitations of more empirical approaches to categorization. Other commentators caution against disease definitions that are detached from the look and feel of disease, and argue for an interplay between genotypic and phenotypic information. Still others attribute nosologic change to social processes. We draw on an analysis of the scientific literature, our conversations with genetics clinicians, and reviews of patient organization Web sites to offer a revised interpretation of the nosologic implications of molecular genetic knowledge. We review the recent histories of three diseases—hemophilia, Rett syndrome, and cystic fibrosis—to argue that nosologic change cannot be explained by either biologic theories of disease etiology or sociologic theories of social tendencies. Although new genetic information challenges disease classifications and is highly influential in their redesign, genetic information can be used in diverse ways to reconstruct disease categories and is not the only influence in these revisions. Ironically, genetic information is likely to play a central role in producing a new, but still empirical, classification scheme.

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