Image: Genomics Beyond Health | Government Office for Science
We step away from the healthcare sector this week to look at the bigger genomics picture
A new report about the wider application of genomics has been published by the Government Office for Science this month. The document, Genomics Beyond Health, looks at how genomics is likely to be involved in our lives and society, and the benefits and challenges it could present in the future.
While genomics’ role in healthcare is the main focus of this blog, its wider development in other areas, including sport, criminal justice and insurance, will still affect public opinion, in turn changing people’s perception of genomics within the healthcare setting.
On launching the nearly 200-page report, Government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “We are still in the infancy of understanding the complexity of genomic data but this is changing very rapidly. 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.”
He continued: “This report looks at the current landscape of genomics, investigates how the science is developing, and looks at what is possible now, what might be possible in the future.”
Areas of interest
The report details that genomics “has the capacity to be transformative for many aspects of society” but that it also comes with ethical, data and security risks that must be addressed by policymakers.
Some of the key areas outlined by the report include:
Some direct-to-consumer genetic tests already claim to identify athletic potential. In future, genomic testing may be used to look for evidence of genetic enhancement or ‘gene doping’ – a practice that has been pre-emptively banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Gene variants that are associated with increased aggression and addiction have already been identified. In some countries, genomic data have been raised as a mitigating factor in criminal trials, but this would be at odds with a maxim in English law: ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
Genomics could have an increasingly large part to play in healthcare insurance, but also in other areas. For example, motor insurers might wish to look at polygenic scores for characteristics such as risk-taking, although the report notes that the public are likely to oppose this.
The report raises three main sets of questions about genomics in these areas:
- whether (and if so, under what circumstances) it would ever be appropriate to use genomics to inform policy- and decision-making and, if so, under what circumstances;
- whether current regulation is fit for purpose and, if not, how to develop a clear framework that protects people without stifling innovation; and
- how to involve the public in decision-making around how genomics can best benefit society.
The report also recognises that public consent is vital when considering how to harness genomic data, with the “privacy, anonymity, and security of the genomic sequence of UK citizens” being of paramount importance. It also highlights that genomic testing must not be used to entrench existing inequalities.
Impact on healthcare
Ultimately, how these issues are dealt with will affect how people feel about genomics, whether they trust how their genomic data is used and whether they will consent to genomic tests in a healthcare context.
It is also important for healthcare professionals to be aware of this wider discussion of genomics. Patients could have questions or misconceptions from the availability of information from different sources, including social media.
As the report says: “There are no certainties as to how genomic technologies will develop, or how people might attempt to use genomic information. However, the direction of travel is becoming clearer. Now is the time to consider what might be possible, and what actions government and the public could take to maximise the benefits and mitigate the risks of our growing knowledge in this field.”
The full Genomics Beyond Health report is available to read on the UK Government website.
Short on time? Check out the summary.