My Life As A Human Guinea Pig

David Ewing Duncan decided to subject himself to more than 200 physical and mental tests — not just for fun, but to write a book about his experience. It's called Experimental Man. Duncan talks with host Jacki Lyden about how close we are to a future where tests can predict our precise risk for developing illness.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Maybe you remember the movie "Gattaca," starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. It's set in a world where seconds after birth, a child is genetically tested for every health problem it will ever have.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gattaca")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character): Neurological condition, 60 percent probability; manic-depression, 42 percent probability; attention deficit disorder, 89 percent probability; heart disorder, 99 percent probability; early fatal potential; life expectancy, 30.2 years.

LYDEN: That film came out 12 years ago, and medical testing has boomed since then. So how close are we to that dystopian "Gattaca" future? One man took a fantastic voyage through his own body to find out, and that's today's Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: David Ewing Duncan had himself tested hundreds of times in a little more than a year. The guy spent 22 hours in MRI machines. He compiled his experiences into a new book called "Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health and Our Toxic World."

Mr. DAVID EWING DUNCAN (Author, "Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health and Our Toxic World"): Well, it's important to point out here that I started out as a healthy person, which is unusual.

I mean, mostly, when you take tests, and you, you know, are involved with the medical system, you're sick, and they're trying to treat you. So this is a bit of a new way to approach medicine.

But what I found out was, essentially, that I am healthy at the end of all of these fancy tests I took. But there were a few little proclivities that I found that might be coming in my future.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. These were a bit scary. Would you tell us what they were?

Mr. DUNCAN: Well, probably the most serious one was that I seem to have a heart attack risk that was not detected with present-day medicine, but was detected with a couple of fancy tests that I took that are in a prototype phase. They're not ready yet for use for everyone. That was one useful test.

LYDEN: But how much should we depend on these kinds of tests, because you got several different results from the heart attack test, ranging from probabilities of 30 to 60 percent.

Mr. DUNCAN: No, that's right. It was essentially a low, medium and high risk, at least for the genetic parts of the test. And I have to say that that was only part of this test for heart attack, and that part was a little confusing, but when that was added into a lot of other tests, like say, a chest CT scan and some other chemistry, cholesterol, things like that, that's where I began to believe this test, and it got a little more focused into, you know, the high-risk category.

LYDEN: Let's talk about the brain-age test. You felt pretty competitive going into that. What is the brain-age test?

Mr. DUNCAN: The brain-age test is actually a very serious test used by pharmaceutical companies when they're testing new neurological drugs, like say, for Alzheimer's, and it essentially measures how old your brain is according to these rather complex cognitive and memory tests.

And I came out, you know, being a 51-year-old man, actually 50 at the time when I took it, with a brain age of only 25, which was kind of nice.

LYDEN: Our senior editor took it, Rick Coulter(ph), and he's 46, and he came out with a brain age of 80. But he was looking, I think, at the NCAA playoffs at the same time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUNCAN: Well, and you know, that's the upper limit of the test, too. He could have actually been even older.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: I, however, was a damsel of 36, and I was eating salad. What was it like to spend 22 hours inside MRI machines?

Mr. DUNCAN: Oh my God, it was the most boring 22 hours of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUNCAN: And it was interesting to get the results, but you're laying on your back inside of this doughnut. There are all kinds of clicks and things going on. You have to wait, basically, for the blood to flow in your brain because that's what it's measuring. It was interesting.

I probably, though, have depleted my interest in sticking my head in an MRI, at least for a while.

LYDEN: Most of us won't be able to do this many tests. Some of them were in experimental stages. What should we learn from the way that testing is improving so rapidly?

Mr. DUNCAN: Well, I tend to be a pragmatist on these kind of tests. I think that they will be coming, and they will be available, and some of them already, in a preliminary way, with online genetic testing companies and that sort of thing. So it's not a matter of, you know, if we will do this. It's a matter of when it happens.

So, I think we need to, ourselves decide, how much of this information do we want to know. I think we need to make sure that, the governmental level, that there are adequate laws passed to protect ourselves from the misuse of this information.

But mostly, it's a philosophical question of where our society will go, having this intimate information that we've never had before about ourselves.

LYDEN: David Ewing Duncan's new book is called "Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health and Our Toxic World." Thanks for taking the NPR test.

Mr. DUNCAN: Well, thank you for having me. Any time.

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