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May 25, 2011 | Posted By Ricki Lewis, PhD

Think it’s a great idea to send off a spit sample to see which future health conditions lurk in your DNA? In the U.S., the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prevents employers from using that information to weasel out of blame for workplace injuries, but in Canada, according to a just-released study, DNA information may come back to haunt you.

Canadian researchers Jeff Nisker, Roxanne Mykitiuk and colleagues report 490 genetic predispositions cited in 468 legal cases, from 1984 to 2010. Most of the cases dealt with worker’s compensation claims, in which an employer could point to an inherited predisposition to arthritis as causing joint pain, rather than to, say, an anvil falling on a foot. Although no overt cases of genetic discrimination emerged, the authors urge “future monitoring.” 

They also question whether lawyers can read between the lines of the genetic testing websites. Consider osteoarthritis. I went to 23andMe to see exactly what they’re hunting for when consumers send in DNA. The company uses two “preliminary research reports,” one for a common gene variant in Asians, the other a genome-wide association study (GWAS) test result among European women. Gene #1 raises risk 0.7 fold; the association, 1.5 fold. If a black man or Hispanic woman in Ontario seeks compensation for a hurt thumb, and has taken said 23andme test, might the employer argue that the pain was genetically predestined? Would the attorney know the difference between a variant of a single gene, a GWAS result, or the context of the result in terms of population genetics or other genetic risk factors for osteoarthritis that 23andme does not test for?

Blaming genes dates back to a 1993 study of a Dutch family whose acts of rape, exhibitionism, and arson were attributed to a mutation in the X-linked gene for monoamine oxidase A, which affects brain chemistry in a way that under certain circumstances correlates to aggression. Attorneys used the “MAOA deficiency defense” to save a man from death row, and it made its way into the annals of Law and Order episodes. Since then, researchers have blamed genes for everything from infidelity to binge eating to thrill seeking. 

It might be safer, if one is inclined to patronize direct-to-consumer genetic testing services and is not protected by GINA, to stick to harmless traits such as pee that smells like asparagus. Better yet, just probe the DNA of other animals. On the same day that the Canadian study broke, another caught my eye. Researchers in Spain used DNA testing to identify horse mackerel in cans of sardines.

I predict that the next new thing in genetics (see here) will be creatively combining tests. If 23andme and the folks from Spain’s National Association of Manufacturers of Canned Fish and Shellfish could get together, perhaps they could test for human fingers lopped off in tuna cans. 

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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