Topic: Genetics
February 8, 2013 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

Anonymity has always been an important component of protecting the privacy of human participants in research and other activities including biobanking. In his January 21, 2013 post to this blog, my colleague Zubin Master asked the question “could it be possible to identify people who have participated in biobanking projects?”  We did not have to wait very long for an answer. It turns out that the January 18, 2013 issue of Science was already on my desk.  In a study in that issue, Melissa Gyrmek and colleagues in a group led by Yaniv Ehlich describe how they used a published genetic sequence as well as accompanying metadata and freely accessible genealogy websites to identify the sequence’s owner. This was big enough news to merit a news article and a policy forum examining the ethical implications all in one issue.

A previous study (Science, September 5, 2008 p1278) had allowed donor identification from a blood sample through analysis of single nucleotide polymorphisms by sequencing a blood sample. This new study is the first to use simply a published sequence.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

January 21, 2013 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Biobanking involves the collection and long-term storage of biological material (e.g., cells, DNA, tissue, blood) and health information (medical history, age, weight, diet, lifestyle). Biobanking permits the examination of genetic and other biological markers on thousands of samples at a time in a given population. Thus, there has been a tremendous amount of interest by scientists, clinicians, and even bioethicists on biobanking. It has been touted as the next frontier expanding on the work done with genomics and proteomics. The value of biobanking research is that although the samples and health information are collected at some point and stored, they can be used for future research when new biomarkers are discovered. Many if not most bioethicists have explained that biobanking risks are pretty low. Risks surrounding privacy can be protected so long as proper measures are in place. As sample collection involves a blood draw or collecting tissue as part of routine care, there is also low risk of physical harm to participants. Because of the scientific and social value of biobanking and its potential minimal harms to participants, many scholars have explained that a broad or blanket informed consent procedure is suitable. According to biobanking advocates, broad consent (consent to certain broad categories of research i.e., cardiovascular or cancer research) or blanket consent (consent to all research or any medical research) is both ethically and legally permissible because re-consenting to each and every future study is resource intensive and burdensome, and there is little harms to participants and privacy risks can be protected. So what’s the problem?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

January 7, 2013 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD


In 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame published a satirical essay called "A Modest Proposal." He suggested that a cure for poverty was for poor people to sell their children to rich people as food.

I’m borrowing Swift’s title to bring up another outrageous idea: analyzing forensic DNA databases for a genetic signature of criminality.

Is there a genetic signature for criminality? 
It’s an old and controversial question. (NHGRI)

ADAM LANZA’S DNA

Days after the Newtown shootings of December 14, 2012, headlines trumpeted the state medical examiner’s request of University of Connecticut geneticists to examine mass murderer Adam Lanza’s DNA. What exactly that might entail wasn’t announced, but celebrity docs, geneticists, and bloggers weighed in, nearly all agreeing that (1) violent tendencies are due to complex interactions of many genetic and environmental factors and (2) probing Lanza’s DNA and finding anything even suggestive of causing his crime could lead to stigmatization of individuals who share suspect genome regions with him.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

December 11, 2012 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

For 15 years, the film GATTACA has been synonymous with “genetic dystopian future,” and has become a mainstay of genetics classrooms. But I’ve found a better film. It’s called, simply, Jim.

“Jim” is a terrific glimpse of a frightening future from Jeremy Morris-Burke, a self-taught filmmaker.

I never could quite connect with GATTACA, the dark tale of an assumed genetic identity in a society where the quality of one’s genome dictates everything. Perhaps it was because 1997 was the pre-genome era, when the idea of ordering a DNA test over the Internet was still science fiction. But ironically GATTACA’s “not-too-distant” future, in which a genetically inferior “invalid” impersonates a “valid” to achieve a dream, sets up a too-obvious conflict, with the details and resolution contrived. I know this from years of reading fiction and watching soap operas.

Although Jim, released in late 2010, shares with GATTACA the premise of widespread genetic enhancement, it’s much more subtle and nuanced.

“Jim” is a terrific glimpse of a frightening future
from Jeremy Morris-Burke, a self-taught filmmaker.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

November 5, 2012 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

Famous folk have been writing about their genome sequences for a few years now. But when I received two such reports at once last week – about genetics researcher Ron Crystal, MD, and a hypothetical (I think) story about President Obama, I knew it was time to take action.

Or, in my case, inaction.

After writing ten editions of a human genetics textbook and lots of articles, you’d think I’d be first in line to get my genome sequenced. But I prefer ignorance.

The quest to know ourselves by our DNA sequences began in the late 1980s, with the conception of the human genome project, and reached a milestone with the actual genome sequencing.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

October 24, 2012 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

When I was a fetus, I was left alone. My amniotic fluid and chorionic villi were untouched, and I arrived apparently normal, except for a mark on the part of my anatomy where a bullet “directly bit” Forrest Gump.

Perhaps that’s too much information. But TMI is precisely the problem when prenatal genetic testing detects a DNA sequence variant, but we don’t know exactly what it means. The fuzzy line between “unusual or uncertain” and “abnormal” in test results can cause great anxiety. This is especially so when “abnormal” before birth doesn’t affect health after, thanks to a characteristic of genes termed incomplete penetrance: not everyone with a genotype develops the corresponding phenotype.

A recent article in Genetics in Medicine examines the distress of a sample of women receiving “abnormal” fetal test results. Lead investigator Barbara Bernhardt, MS, a genetic counselor and co-director of the Penn Center for the Integration of Genetic Healthcare Technologies, reports that some of the participants called the test results “toxic knowledge.”

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

October 1, 2012 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

On July 11, Wills Eye Institute ophthalmologist Carl Regillo delicately placed 100,000 cells beneath the retina of 52-year-old Maurie Hill’s left eye. She was rapidly losing her vision due to Stargardt disease, an inherited macular dystrophy similar to the much more common dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Maurie’s disease was far along, the normally lush forests of photoreceptor cells in the central macula area severely depleted, especially the cones that provide color vision. Would the introduced cells nestle among the ragged remnants of her retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) and take over, restoring the strangled energy supply to her remaining photoreceptors? They should, for the cells placed in Maurie’s eye weren’t ordinary cells. They were derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).

I’ve waited 15 years to see human embryonic stem cells, or their “daughter” cells, make their way through clinical trials. And thanks to Maurie’s sharing her story, I’m witnessing translational medicine.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

August 3, 2012 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

On Sunday morning, July 21, I faced a room of people from families with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), an inherited blindness caused by mutations in any of at least 18 genes. It was the final session of the Foundation for Retinal Research’s bi-annual LCA family conference, and I was there to discuss the history of gene therapy. But I zapped through that quickly, because the future is much more intriguing.

The excitement pervading the room that day was palpable, following a day of scientific updates, and not only because those with young children were soon to visit Sesame World and the sights of Philadelphia.


E
xome sequencing identified the rare mutation that causes Gavin Stevens’ hereditary blindness (Leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA). (Photo: Jennifer Stevens)

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

July 19, 2012 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

My mother-in-law’s arms look like she’s been in a fight. The bruises don’t hurt, but they’re embarrassing. They’re likely due to the drug Plavix, a trade-off for preventing clots. But we don’t know if the drug is actually helping, because she started it before the FDA urged physicians to use a pharmacogenetic (PGx) test to distinguish patients likely to respond to the drug from “poor metabolizers,” who won’t. And no one’s thought to test her since.

The original Plavix genetic test identified mutations in the CYP2C19 gene. More recent versions assess seven other genetic variants that affect metabolism of the drug. On June 29, the University of Florida Academic Health Center announced that it would use the wider genetic test to screen all cardiac catheterization patients for response to Plavix. And in the future, they’ll check additional DNA variants in the samples. According to the press release from the university, “researchers … will collect results for the other 249 gene variations to continue investigating which ones might be clinically actionable and become the basis for additional PGx tests for other treatments such as warfarin and statins.”

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

June 21, 2012 | Posted By Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

It was bound to happen. Last week, Nature reported that a Hungarian company “certified” that a member of parliament did not haveJewish or Roma heritage. It seems we have not come very far at all from the hatreds and behaviors that led to the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s. But, of course, 70 years is the merest blip compared to 10,000 or more years of fear of the other.

Is this a problem of science as such? Or is it a problem related to what it means to be a human being, that notorious “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”? Or is this virulent distortion of scientific progress merely what can be expected when the fruits of scientific research are placed in human hands? Modern science was born, asserts Hannah Arendt in her essay The Concept of History, when attention shifted from the search after the “what” to the investigation of “how”. Historically, science was concerned with exploring the natural world. Scientists such as Aristotle categorized, catalogued, and examined phenomena. The overall goal was to improve understanding of man’s place in creation. Investigation of the “how” was activity of an entirely different sort. Now scientists began to pull things apart in attempts to understand how things work.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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