The publication of the draft sequence for the human genome changed the research and clinical medicine landscape forever. This genetic map created the possibility to develop more personalized health care and targeted therapeutics. It opened the door to the age of “big data” sets in biomedical research, fusing science, computer technology, and mathematics – the “s,” “t,” and “m” of “STEM.”
In the 20 years that followed the publication of the human genome, many advances in biomedicine occurred. Improvements in DNA sequencing technologies, built upon the original sequencing project, made the noninvasive prenatal screening test (NIPT) possible. The ease, speed, and cost effectiveness of sequencing has made diagnosing fetal structural anomalies using whole-exome sequencing a reality.
However, uncovering humanity’s genetic code introduced new quandaries and reopened old wounds: How would a person’s genetic data be used? Could a person’s risk for disease, identified through sequencing, lead to overdiagnosis? Would knowing the human genome reinforce age-old ideas that genes make one group superior or inferior? Could we now create “designer babies”?
This last question has become even more pressing with the advent of human gene editing technology, also known by its acronym “CRISPR.” doi:10.1038/d41586-020-00001-y) has rippled through the biomedical community and spurred numerous debates on the ethics of using such a powerful tool (Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance; doi: 10.17226/24623)., but it also has the potential for bringing us to the precipice of a Wellsian reality. The alarming claim that scientists had used CRISPR to edit the genes of human babies (Nature. 2020;577:154-5;
The passage of the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA; https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/genetic-information-nondiscrimination-act-2008) in 2008 ensured that health insurance companies and employers could not use a person’s genome against them, creating a balance between the forces of “can we?” and “should we?” Yet, many ethical questions remain.
We have invited two experts from the University of Maryland (Baltimore) School of Medicine’s department of obstetrics, gynecology & reproductive sciences, Christopher Harman, MD, professor and chair, and Amanda Higgs, MGC, CGC, senior genetic counselor, to address how advances in genomics affect patient care and counseling.
Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. He is the medical editor of this column. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Contact him at email@example.com.