UConn to Launch State’s First Genetic Counseling Program

Scientist analyzing DNA sequence. (Shutterstock Photo)
As demand grows for such counseling, there's an urgent need for training in how to interpret the results of genetic tests. (Shutterstock Photo)

UConn is establishing the state’s first program to educate students on how to interpret the results of genetic testing, a rapidly growing area in health care that urgently needs more trained personnel.

New genetics research and techniques have made it easy for the average person to get a read on their genome, or whole genetic code. In recent years, attention from celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who openly discussed her genetic risk factors for cancer, has increased demand enormously.

Just because a person carries a potentially problematic gene doesn’t mean they’re destined to die of the disease. Yet doctors don’t usually have much background in genetics, and rarely have enough time to keep up with the latest genetic research.

Ideally, a doctor who identifies “red flags” within a patient’s family history that indicate increased genetic risk for disease will call in a genetic counselor. The counselor can take a detailed family history, determine the appropriateness of genetic testing, discuss benefits and limitations of the testing, and advise the patient on who else in their family might be at risk. If testing occurs and results indicate high genetic risk, counselors can help discuss the options to mitigate that risk. These actions could be as mild as lifestyle changes, or as extreme as surgery to remove organs before they become cancerous.

In Connecticut, genetic counseling is the fourth fastest growing occupation, but with a small pool of programs throughout the nation, the acceptance rate for those programs is below 8 percent.

“Our students are anxious. They want to do this!” says Judy Brown, program director of diagnostic genetic sciences in UConn’s Department of Allied Health Sciences.

Brown, along with Institute for Systems Genomics director Marc Lalande and UConn Health genetics counselor Ginger Nichols, is spearheading the new Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in Genetics, Genomics, and Counseling with a more than $300,000 grant from the University.

The first class is expected to enter in the fall of 2018. Anyone with a bachelor’s degree who has met the admission requirements will be able to apply. More information on educational requirements for Genetic Counseling Programs, in general, can be found online.

Institutions outside of UConn have also expressed support for the new PSM, including Connecticut Children’s Hospital and The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine.

“When genetic research is ready for prime time, you need clinicians who can understand and apply it,” says Kate Reed, director of the Clinical and Continuing Education Program at JAX Genomic Medicine. “Right now, many clinicians don’t have the training to do that.”

The exact role of JAX Genomic Medicine, Connecticut Children’s Hospital, and the other institutions who support the new PSM has not yet been defined. The program’s curriculum first needs to be approved and accredited.

For updates on the program go to UConn’s Department of Allied Health Sciences website.