Genomics: Letting the Genome Out Of The Bottle

How can we ensure the genomics revolution is for the good?

We’ve come a long way since the first draft of the human genome project appeared in scientific journals 17 years ago. By 2007, individual genome sequencing had begun in earnest. Today, the scope of what can be understood from our genomes is widening exponentially: more people know more about themselves than ever before. By 2022, the global genomics market is expected to reach $23.88bn, which is hardly surprising given humanity’s ceaseless interest in itself. But while genomics has certainly proven useful in improving quality of life, organisations have a responsibility to think long and hard about its potential problems.

What’s so great about genomics?

Through genomics, it is possible to identify aspects of a person’s genome that make them increasingly susceptible to certain medical conditions. In the same vein, it can help to spot genome features that make someone more responsive to particular treatments. Combine these insights, and you have the perfect storm for disrupted, personalised healthcare.

As well as informing treatments, genomics has the power to teach people how to alter their lifestyles for optimal health. If someone was susceptible to diabetes, they could tailor their diet to respond to this before it had the chance to seriously impact their life. Instead of attempting to cure health related issues when they become evident, genomics approaches healthcare in a predictive and preventative way.

At the moment, we only understand around one per cent of the three billion digits in the human genome. The more we learn about our genomes, the better our understanding will be. One day, genomics experts believe that babies will have their genomes sequenced at birth. That way, any issues can be identified and dealt with immediately.

A darker side of genomics

Unfortunately, as with any powerful technology there are risks. With CRISPR gene editing, it is possible to snip out errors in genomes. But what happens when ‘errors’ don’t just include disease susceptibility, but subjective issues too? What if parents could essentially design their own offspring by snipping out genes for brown hair, or green eyes? And, without getting too speculatively dystopian, imagine what would happen if an organisation ever had this sort of power. Even just a snapshot of our genomes could potentially affect our ability to access products and services. An insurance company, for instance, would know exactly which customers would be most likely to suffer from a certain disease and factor this into policy offers. If an employer knew you were likely to suffer from a serious disease, then perhaps they would choose to employ a ‘healthier’ candidate. We are all aware of sinister parallels with this kind of thinking in human history, reminding us that genomics opens up complex ethical discussions that need clear thinking and proper safeguarding to ensure any exploration or use of this technology meets rigorous high ethical standards.

Complications or safeguards?

Regulatory bodies have a hard task ahead of them in policing research and development. There is a fine but essential line between sensible restrictions and halting progress. Even without the regulatory question, genomics may also be held back by a simple lack of technology or computing power. Insufficient data processing techniques have been cited as a key factor in the slow development of the human genome project, and as we continue to explore our three billion digit genomes we will need the technology to analyse this information. Understandably, there are also consumer attitudes to contend with. Playing around with genes, even if benevolent, is changing who we are – for many people, that is fundamentally unsettling.

Before genomics can have a chance of positive global impact, it will need more diligent testing, extensive regulation, and widely distributed information. Although genome sequencing is becoming more common, there are still major concerns surrounding ethics, privacy and prejudice all of which must be addressed. With increased awareness of potential data malpractice, will consumers really want to share such personal information with organisations? On the other hand, potential genomics benefits could encourage people to be more open about their personal data. The key question is, can humans really be trusted to use genomics for purely benevolent purposes?

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