Security of genetic information is an enormous concern for individuals, and thus an enormous concern facing commercial genetic enterprises.Â I was recently having a conversation with someone about the security of genetic and personal information at companies such as 23andMe and Navigenics, and I pointed out that the very livelihood of these organizations depends on their ability to secure information.Â A single security breach could potentially drive away future customers.
“With a credit card and a saliva sample, consumers can now unlock the secrets carried in their DNA. Consumer genomics offers direct access to one’s genetic code, plus interpretations of health risks, family lineage, opportunities for social networking, and more. But how should consumer genomics be regulated? Join us for a panel discussion with leaders at the forefront of consumer genomics (23andme and Navigenics), media commentators (Alexis Madrigal from Wired), and policy makers.”
Let me start my analysis by clearly pointing out my personal positions:
After years of experience in this field, I am a proponent of genetic genealogy testing, a scientific endeavor that has been utilized by as many as 500,000 to 800,000 customers.
I believe that education, not more government regulation, is the most efficient and appropriate answer to the issues raised by the authors of the paper.
I believe that autosomal genetic genealogy testing is in its infancy and should only be used with the understanding that the results are only extremely rough estimates that are subject to change as the field develops.
With those personal positions in mind, and after reviewing the paper, I have a number of general concerns with the paper’s conclusions:
“What is genetic ancestry and how does it relate to race and ethnicity? The development of increasingly cost effective genomic sequencing technologies and public interest in genetic ancestry has led to a dramatic flourishing of direct-to-consumer products and new approaches to biomedical research. In this session, panelists define the contours of this emerging landscape and explore the commercial, biomedical, social and ethical implications of this burgeoning category of genomic application. Panelists consider the following questions: What genetic ancestry information is available to consumers? How is genetic ancestry used in biomedical research? What implications do genetic approaches to ancestry have on social identity? What ethical and policy issues must be addressed in this changing landscape? Panelists provide perspectives from industry, medicine, cultural studies, and bioethics.”
The talk was a Syracuse Symposium event, and the first big event ever to be held in Syracuse University’s new $110 million Life Sciences Center.Â I thought it was fitting that the first event to celebrate the future of the new life sciences building was a lecture that examined the collective genetic journey of mankind.
Dr. Wells began by giving the audience a very brief introduction about DNA and genetic genealogy.Â He included a great quote that “The question of origin is actually a question about genealogy.”Â For those that are not familiar with the Genographic Project, it was launched in 2005 and includes three primary missions:
Nature has a brand new web focus on personal genomics (as of November 5th, 2008).Â And best of all, most of the articles are entirely free to access, download, and read!Â From the site:
“As the number of human beings with their genomes fully sequenced ticks higher and direct-to-consumer gene profiling companies push the limits of what medical genetics can do, the once fantastical notion that any given human can walk into a doctor’s office with his or her genome on a hard drive looks more and more like a reality. Still the question remains to be answered: how do we use this wealth information? In this Nature web focus we proudly present the challenges this approaching reality poses for technology, the legal and ethical confines of research, and the ability of genomics to translate into clinical utility.”
Ötzi the Iceman is the popular name for a 5,000 year-old mummy discovered frozen in the ice of the Alps in 1991. Studies of the Iceman has revealed an immense amount of information about him, including details of his life, his death, and his culture.
Although Ötzi’s mtDNA has previously been studied, researchers had only examined short segments which suggested that his mtDNA belonged to Haplogroup K. A new paper in Current Biology (subscription only darn it) details Ötzi’s full mtDNA genome for the first time:
"Using a mixed sequencing procedure based on PCR amplification and 454 sequencing of pooled amplification products, we have retrieved the first complete mitochondrial-genome sequence of a prehistoric European. We have then compared it with 115 related extant lineages from mitochondrial haplogroup K. We found that the Iceman belonged to a branch of mitochondrial haplogroup K1 that has not yet been identified in modern European populations."
The latest issue of TIME Magazine lists the top 50 inventions of 2008, and the invention of the year is the Retail DNA Test.Â The article is mostly about the product currently offered by 23andMe.Â From the article:
As if there wasn’t enough to worry about during the genetic revolution, researchers have found a way to characterize redacted genetic sequences from whole-genome or large-scale sequencing.
Here’s how it works.Â Let’s say that Mr. X has had his genome sequenced, but doesn’t want to know the results of some genes known to influence the development or progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.Â So when he receives his genomic sequencing, these genes have been ‘redacted’, or removed from the data.Â This is exactly what James Watson decided to do when he received his data.
Characterizing Redacted Genes
However, researchers have characterized one of Watson’s redacted genes by examining the sequences surrounding the gene in question.Â Often, when we inherit a gene from our patents, we receive that gene as well as some of the surrounding genetic sequence.Â By examining the surrounding sequence, some insight into the redacted gene is gained.Â For example, if I gave you the quote “A penny _____ is a penny earned”, you can derive from the surrounding words that the missing word is “saved.”
This week I was quoted in the November issue of Wired Magazine about the use of autosomal DNA for genetic genealogy testing.
At “Adoptees use DNA to find surname,” Larry Moran at Sandwalk comments on my recent articles (here, here, and here) regarding the use of genetic genealogy (or genetic sequencing in general) test results to find unknown biological parents.Â Although Dr. Moran accuses me of being a “cheerleader” who is blind to any ethical concerns associated with using DNA to find biological parents, he obviously didn’t do his research!Â Less than a month ago I wrote this on the blog:
“For most people, being able to identify your own ancestors based on your own DNA poses few if any ethical dilemmas. However, what if your neighbor or your stalker or even law enforcement wants to use a sample of your DNA to identify your ancestors? Additionally, what if your living ancestor doesnâ€™t wish to be identified? Does the ancestor have that right, or is possible identification through genetic genealogy just one of the consequences of parenting a child anonymously or simply having sex with another person?”