Colorful lottery balls in a rotating bingo machine.

Equalizing the Genetic Lottery?

By James Toomey

Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality is a thoughtful, thorough, and well-written book about the compatibility of behavioral genetics with progressive ideology. Weaving together her own fascinating work in genetics with Rawlsian political philosophy, Harden’s book is necessary reading for anyone interested in inheritance or politics — which, I suppose, is everyone.

The basic argument of the book is that the so-called First Law of Behavioral Genetics is correct — everything is heritable. Harden supports this claim with a wealth of research in genetics over the past few decades, with an emphasis on her own contributions (“within a group of children who are all in school, nearly all of the differences in general [executive function] are estimated to be due to the genetic differences between them”). More importantly, Harden does not think this fact has the implications for normative politics that many, particularly on the left, worry it does. The fact that some genetic profiles cause higher general intelligence — or anything else — does not mean those who have them are better or more deserving of society’s bounty and social prestige. We can, and should, adopt “anti-eugenic” policies designed to make better as much as possible the lives of the genetically “unluckiest.”

Accepting Harden’s descriptive premises, I find her political theory basically right. But the book elides a crucial distinction in left-leaning political thought that, I think, misses something about why so many on the left find the prospect of the heritability of mental characteristics so troubling, and which perhaps diminishes the book’s ability to persuade its target audience (which, frankly, is not me, having been already convinced on much of this by The Blank Slate).

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BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 29, 2019: NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus. The NIH is the US's medical research agency.

Will NIH Learn from Myriad when Settling Its mRNA Inventorship Dispute with Moderna?

By Jorge L. Contreras

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently embroiled in a dispute over the ownership of patent rights to Moderna’s flagship mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (mRNA-1273).

The NIH, which funded much of Moderna’s research on the COVID-19 vaccine, should be assertive in exerting control over the results of this taxpayer-funded research. Failing to do so would be a missed opportunity for the public sector to have a say in the distribution and pricing of this critical medical technology.

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Concept illustration of DNA and genes.

The Civil Rights Challenge to Gene Patenting

By Jorge L. Contreras

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a unique lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, challenging fifteen claims of seven patents covering various aspects of the BRCA1/2 genes and their use in diagnosing risk for breast and ovarian cancer. In mounting this case, the ACLU assembled a coalition of lawyers, scientists, counselors, patients and advocates in an unprecedented challenge not only to one company’s patents, but the entire practice of gene patenting in America. And, against the odds, they won. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that naturally occurring DNA sequences are not patentable, a ruling that has had repercussions throughout the scientific community and the biotechnology industry.

In The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA (New York: Hachette/Algonquin, 2021), I describe the long road that led to this unlikely Supreme Court victory. It began in 2003 when the ACLU hired its first science advisor, a Berkeley-based cellist and non-profit organizer named Tania Simoncelli. At the ACLU, Simoncelli’s job was to identify science-related issues that the ACLU could do something about, from DNA fingerprinting to functional MRI brain imaging. A couple of years into the role, Simoncelli mentioned gene patenting to Chris Hansen, a veteran ACLU litigator who had been involved in cases covering mental health to school desegregation to online porn. At first, Hansen didn’t believe her. How could a company patent something inside the human body? But Simoncelli persisted, showing him articles and statistics demonstrating that, by 2005, more than 20% of the human genome was covered by patents. The realization led to Hansen’s oft-quoted exclamation, “Who can we sue?”

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Illustration of a man and a woman standing in front of a DNA helix

A Proposal for Localized Review to Safeguard Genetic Database Privacy

By Robert I. Field, Anthony W. Orlando, and Arnold J. Rosoff

Large genetic databases pose well-known privacy risks. Unauthorized disclosure of an individual’s data can lead to discrimination, public embarrassment, and unwanted revelation of family secrets. Data leaks are of increasing concern as technology for reidentifying anonymous genomes continues to advance.

Yet, with the exception of California and Virginia, state legislative attempts to protect data privacy, most recently in Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, have failed to garner widespread support. Political resistance is particularly stiff with respect to a private right of action. Therefore, we propose a federal regulatory approach, which we describe below.

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Doctor, DNA, microscope concept illustration.

Reclassification of Genetic Test Results: Potential Time Bombs in the Medical Record? 

By Ellen Wright Clayton

Findings from genetic tests are not static; as knowledge advances, our understanding of the implications of these results evolves.

But what this means for physicians and their duties to patients is unresolved, as I explain with co-authors in a new article in Genetics in Medicine, the official journal of the ACMG.

There is an increasing drumbeat of support for an ethical and legal duty for physicians to reinterpret genetic test results and re-contact patients about these new understandings to improve their care.

Currently, reviewing prior medical records is by no means routine. Clinicians may review past records if they suspect that they have missed something as symptoms evolve, or that the significance of a symptom or biomarker may have changed because of new research.

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Scientist analyzes DNA gel used in genetics, forensics, drug discovery, biology and medicine

Transplant Genomics: Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications

By Tamar Schiff

The appeal of precision medicine is of particular significance in transplantation. Treatment options are already integrally dependent on genetic factors – the donor-recipient match – and the demand for transplantable tissues far outstrips the available supply.

And the potential is only growing. Advances in genetic and genomic studies have identified an increasing number of novel biomarkers of potential use in transplant-related care. These include predictors of disease course, graft survival, response to immunosuppression, and likelihood of disease recurrence or other complications.

With wider availability of sequencing technologies and innovations in databanking, future clinical applications in transplant care may require ever-growing considerations of the significance of genetic variants, fair access to precision medicine therapeutics and participation in research, ethical approaches to data aggregation, and social determinants of health.

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Person typing on computer.

Online Terms of Use for Genealogy Websites – What’s in the Fine Print?

By Jorge L. Contreras

Since genealogy websites first went online, researchers have been using the data that they contain in large-scale epidemiological and population health studies. In many cases, data is collected using automated tools and analyzed using sophisticated algorithms.

These techniques have supported a growing number of discoveries and scientific papers. For example, researchers have used this data to identify genetic markers for Alzheimer’s Disease, to trace an inherited cancer syndrome back to a single German couple born in the 1700s, and to gain a better understanding of longevity and family dispersion.  In the last of these studies, researchers analyzed family trees from 86 million individual genealogy website profiles.

Despite the scientific value of publicly-available genealogy website information, and its free accessibility via the Internet, it is not always the case that this data can be used for research without the permission of the site operator or the individual data subjects.

In fact, the online terms of use (TOU) for genealogy websites may restrict or prohibit the types of uses for data found on those sites.

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Close up of a mosquito sucking blood on human skin. This mosquito is a carrier of Malaria, Encephalitis, Dengue and Zika virus.

Responsibly Developing Gene Drives: The GeneConvene Global Collaborative

By James Toomey

Researchers believe that gene drives could eliminate vector-borne diseases such as malaria, by modifying mosquito species or eradicating those that carry disease, kill off invasive species, and combat the growing problem of pesticide resistance.

A gene drive is a technique for genetically modifying entire species of wild organisms. Genetically modified individuals of the species are released into the wild, so as to raise the probability that a particular gene will be passed onto the species’ progeny via reproduction.

Over the course of many generations, the gene — even if detrimental — can spread to an entire population.

But as of now, this is all hypothetical. No gene drive has been tested in the wild, and many people are skeptical that they should ever be used.

The GeneConvene Global Collaborative, a project of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, was started this past July to promote the responsible development and regulation of gene drive technologies. It brings together researchers, regulators and stakeholders around the world to develop best practices for gene drive research and implementation.

Because of my prior writing on this topic, I participated in GeneConvene’s fall webinar series and spoke with scientists there about the project. Read More

Doctor, DNA, microscope concept illustration.

Legislative Success in FL Suggests Time is Ripe for Further Genetic Nondiscrimination Protections

By Anna C F Lewis and Anya E R Prince

On July 1, a law banning the use of genetic information by life, long-term care, and disability income insurers took effect in Florida.

Florida’s success marks a potential turning point of bipartisan appeal for this issue.

The passage of this law, which we explore in a recent article published in Genetics in Medicine, the official journal of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), was propelled by a campaign that argued that an individual’s DNA should not be weaponized against them, that affordable insurance shouldn’t just be for the genetic elite, and that an individual should be able to keep their genetic data private.

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Illustration of a man and a woman standing in front of a DNA helix

Research Reveals Potential Concerns About Genetic Testing for Suicide Risk

By Brent Kious, Anna Docherty, Leslie Francis, Teneille Brown, Jeffrey Botkin, Douglas Gray, Brooks Keeshin, Louisa Stark, Brieanne Witte, and Hilary Coon

Companies that offer direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC-GT) will soon be able to provide scores that estimate suicide risk.

Our recent study, appearing in Genetics in Medicine, the official journal of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) raises ethical questions about how these risk scores will be understood.

The causes of suicide are complex. Many risk factors intersect: psychiatric symptoms like depression, different life stressors, family history, access to lethal firearms, and substance abuse, among many others.

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