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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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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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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Image of binary and dna

Assessing genetic relationships between academia and industry

By Kayte Spector-Bagdady JD, MBioethics
Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology; Research Ethics Service, Center for Bioethics & Social Sciences in Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI

With recent reports of Google’s data deals with Ascension health and the University of Chicago, there has been a lot of attention paid recently to the sharing and use of health data by unexpected entities.

But we know that patients are uncomfortable when hospitals “commercialize” or sell their health data or biospecimens to industry. In fact, the recent revisions to the human subjects research regulations included a specific biospecimen commercialization disclosure requirement.

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close up of DNA fingerprints

DNA databases, cracking crimes, and confidentiality

By: Leslie E. Wolf, JD, MPH, Georgia State University College of Law, Interim Dean and Distinguished University Professor and Laura M. Beskow, MPH, PhD, Ann Geddes Stahlman Chair in Medical Ethics, Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

In our article, Genomic databases, subpoenas, and Certificates of Confidentiality, published in Genetics in Medicine, the official journal of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), we considered the protections available to research genomic databases in light of law enforcement’s use of ancestry databases to help solve crimes.

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

Time to Ban Heritable Genome Editing

By Jeffrey R. Botkin, MD, MPH, Professor of Pediatrics and Medical Ethics at University of Utah

We are at a critical crossroad in reproductive medicine.  How should science and society more broadly manage the powerful new technologies that can alter the genes of human embryos?  In a recent paper published in Genetics in Medicine, the official journal of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), I argue that banning the use of this technology editing human embryo is the right direction.

Concerns over theoretical capabilities of “designer babies” have been with us for generations.  The ability screen and test for embryos and fetuses with undesirable characteristics and forestall their birth is well-developed and familiar. But the actual ability to add, subtract or alter genes in the embryo is quite new.  The CRISPR-Cas9 technology and related technologies burst on the scene in the last decade and the ability to relatively easily and cheaply to alter human embryos is no longer science fiction.

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petri dish with DNA fingerprint

3 Things You Should Know About the Petrie-Flom Center’s 2019 Annual Conference

Breakthroughs in genetics have often raised complex ethical and legal questions, which loom ever larger as genetic testing is becoming more commonplace, affordable, and comprehensive, and genetic editing becomes poised to be a consumer technology. As genetic technologies become more accessible to individuals, the ethical and legal questions around the consumer use of these technologies become more pressing.

We are excited, therefore, to have many major thought leaders in this space discuss these issues at the Petrie-Flom Annual Conference, “Consuming Genetics: Ethical and Legal Considerations of New Technologies,” which will take place at Harvard Law School in May. Read More

DNA Donors Must Demand Stronger Privacy Protection

By Mason Marks and Tiffany Li

An earlier version of this article was published in STAT.

The National Institutes of Health wants your DNA, and the DNA of one million other Americans, for an ambitious project called All of Us. Its goal — to “uncover paths toward delivering precision medicine” — is a good one. But until it can safeguard participants’ sensitive genetic information, you should decline the invitation to join unless you fully understand and accept the risks.

DNA databases like All of Us could provide valuable medical breakthroughs such as identifying new disease risk factors and potential drug targets. But these benefits could come with a high price: increased risk to individuals’ genetic data privacy, something that current U.S. laws do not adequately protect. Read More