Genomics’ role beyond healthcare and medical research

31 January 2022

The UK government has investigated possible future applications of genomics beyond healthcare and the potential risks involved in its growing use, published in an open report.

The technology to sequence the human genome has developed rapidly in recent years from costing £4 billion twenty years ago to only around £800 today. Genome sequencing is already widely used in the UK to screen for genetic diseases. But in their Genomics Beyond Health report, the Government Office for Science highlights how growing access to genomics could continue its use beyond health, from DNA based predictions of children’s behavioural traits and educational achievement to an athlete’s inherent capabilities. The report also indicates that while there are many benefits to this information, predictions based on genomics are open to misinterpretation and they raise ethical questions surrounding discrimination based on DNA.

‘Now is the time to consider what might be possible, and what actions government and the public could take to ensure the widespread application of genomics can occur in a way that protects and benefits us all’, said Sir Patrick Vallance, UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor.

In their 198-page report, the authors outline how genomics can help determine certain disease risks, identify suspects at crime-scenes and develop crops resistant to pests and harsh climates.

But they point to several ethical and practical issues where genomics is heading next. Genome based predictions of how well a child will perform at school could help tailor education to individual needs. But the authors note that other factors such as parental education currently predict academic performance much more accurately, yet there are no regulations in the UK to limit genomic testing marketed at parents.

Another possibility is the use of genomics in hiring to select workers with optimal health and the desired personality traits. The authors argue this would be inherently discriminatory and lack scientific grounding by disregarding environmental influence.

The report suggests that as genomics sequencing technologies become increasingly advances and increase in use more consideration should be given to policy and regulation. A structured framework governing how genomic information is collected and used could protect by law the privacy, anonymity, and security of the genome sequences of UK citizens.

‘The use of genomic data outside the healthcare setting needs careful scrutiny, and safeguards are needed to protect the public from any potential misuse of their data’ said Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust. ‘This report must be acted on expeditiously, as genomics is such a fast-moving area.’

The report was produced together with thirty experts in science, technology and policy to provide a ‘basis for discussion within government departments’, helping engage with future issues before they arise.

26 January 2022
26 January 2022
The Guardian
26 January 2022
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