Genomics and public health



Many applications of genomic technologies raise ethical issues. Emilia Niemiec and Heidi Howard highlight some of them in a chapter in a recent book on applied genomics and public health. They underline the need for education and research on ethical aspects of new genomic technologies. They also highlight the potential of genomic technologies and the problems they introduce.

“We should thoroughly examine the potential risks and benefits of new genomic technologies, including the ethical and social aspects, not just the physical risks and benefits,” says Emilia Niemiec, postdoc researcher at Uppsala University.

In their chapter (“Genethics” and Public Health Genomics), Emilia Niemiec and Heidi Howard encourage discussions about the limitations of these technologies and the associated risks and uncertainties. They also stress the need to consider stakeholders’ views and interests, including those from vulnerable groups who may be affected by these technologies.

Emilia Niemiec and Heidi Howard argue that genomic knowledge and technologies should be translated for public health applications in a responsible way. This includes carefully considering the risks and limitations of the technologies. Potential conflicts of interest also need to be identified, highlighted and followed more closely.

The ethical debates around sequencing the genome for clinical purposes concerns discussions about what is adequate consent process, how (and if) results should be returned to participants, and whether we should screen for a set of disease-related variants, so called opportunistic screening. When it comes to editing the genome (which is mainly done in research settings), there is a distinction made between changing the genome in somatic cells (that can’t be passed on to the next generation) and editing the genome in gametes (eggs or sperm) and embryos as part of an IVF process. This is illegal in many countries and raises serious ethical concerns. Some of them relate to safety of the technique, potential psychological and societal impacts on children whose genome was edited before they were born, without their consent. According to the authors, these and other issues need to be carefully considered.

By Anna Holm & Josepine Fernow

Niemiec E & Howard HC, "Genethics" and Public Health Genomics, in Applied Genomics and Public Health / [ed] George P. Patrinos, San Diego: Elsevier Inc./Academic Press, 2020, 1, p. 243-257

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