As genetic counseling grows, so do Iowa's needs

Iowa Institute of Human Genetics looks to grow student interest

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About 30 college students gathered last week at the University of Iowa to ask questions about genomic medicine and learn more about the growing field of genetic counseling.

“I really just wanted to learn what a genetic counselor does and see if it’s something to consider,” said Katie Knudtson, who will be a freshman at Iowa State University this fall.

Genetic counselors educate patients about how their genes affect their health. The counselors specialize in certain areas, such as pediatric, cancer, prenatal or psychiatric.

“It’s a good marriage between education and research,” said Erin Davidson, an intern at the Iowa Institute of Human Genetics at the UI.

Davidson, who studied biology at Colorado State University, is in the process of applying to graduate school.

“The research and technology is exploding,” she said. “I want to help people understand their options and what their tests mean.”

The Iowa Institute of Human Genetics promotes education, clinical care and research. The organization, which was created two years ago, develops new tests, such as how the body and its genetic makeup metabolize drugs, and works on integrating them into a clinical setting, said Colleen Campbell, a certified genetic counselor and assistant director of the institute.

“That way we can predict what category you fall into and prescribe the right drug the first time,” she said.

As more areas of medicine begin to integrate genetics, more genetic counselors will be needed, Campbell said. The state has only 12 practicing genetic counselors, or one for every 250,000 residents.

“We need more,” she said. “They’re a statewide resource.”

However, there are only 32 genetic counseling master’s programs in the United States — and none in Iowa. Campbell said the institute is considering developing one, but it’s a long process.

“We need a training program here,” she said. “It increases the chance of having students stay and practice here.”

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