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  • The Human Genome Project and Bioethics
  • Eric T. Juengst, Ph.D. (bio)

The fifteen-year "human genome project" at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy officially began on October 1, 1990. With it began a new dimension in federally supported scientific research: concurrent funding for work to anticipate the social consequences of the project's research and to develop policies to guide the use of the knowledge it produces. As a result, the National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR) at NIH will support the largest public investment in bioethical analysis to date.

NCHGR was established to work with other federal, private, and international organizations on the scientific effort to characterize the form and content of the human genome. The research will yield information—high-resolution genetic linkage and physical maps of all the human chromosomes as well as human DNA sequence data—that will be a resource for studies of gene structure and function. It will greatly increase our understanding of the genetic aspects of human health and disease. That increased understanding will eventually provide insights into the prevention and treatment of the 3,000 known inherited disorders, and of conditions caused by our (gene-governed) physiological reactions to pathogens, toxins, and mutagens of external origin.

It has been clear since the conception of the human genome project, however, that professional and public deliberations concerning the responsible use of genetic information must be a part of the process. The most immediate consequence of genome research will be the development of new diagnostic and predictive tests, well in advance of corresponding therapeutic or curative advances. The implications of acquiring and using that knowledge about individuals raise policy questions at many levels within society. The primary purpose of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Program at the NCHGR is to anticipate and address these questions early in the life of the scientific project, to help optimize the [End Page 71] benefits to human welfare and opportunity from the new knowledge, and to guard against its misuses.

The program has identified three sets of questions as particularly important to pursue as the genome initiative proceeds:

  1. 1.

    Issues involved in the integration of new genetic tests into medical practice. Human genome research is expected to increase greatly the number of gene-based diagnostic and prognostic tests available to health professionals. The bioethical policy problems involved in integrating those tests effectively into medical practice include developing standards for:

    • — accuracy and quality control of genetic tests;

    • — medical indications for testing and design of testing protocols;

    • — professional responsibilities of clinicians who perform tests;

    • — confidentiality of information obtained from testing;

    • — access to and use of test results by third parties, such as health insurers; and

    • — reimbursement for testing and test-related counseling.

    These are problems for both those charged with regulating the use of new genetic tests and for those establishing the standards of practice within the health professions. Thus, in addition to soliciting and funding scholarly research proposals on both the factual and normative questions raised by these problems, the program is commissioning a major new study by the National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine aimed at providing professional guidelines for the integration of genetic services into mainstream medical practice.

  2. 2. Issues involved in educating and counseling individuals about genetic test results. The primary risk that health professionals will face in using genetic tests is the misinterpretation of their findings and the resulting potential for psychological trauma, stigmatization, and discrimination. Sometimes, out of ignorance, patients, families, and social institutions already stigmatize genetic disorders and treat those with them unfairly. This risk broadens as the genetic elements of more health problems are uncovered and gene-based tests for susceptibilities and carrier states are developed.

    To protect against these risks, NCHGR is soliciting and supporting projects aimed at improving professional and public understanding of these tests and their implications. For example, a philosopher is leading a team of geneticists and physicians in a scholarly effort to clarify [End Page 72] concepts of genetic susceptibility and draw out the social meaning of their different interpretations. Other projects involve social scientific studies of genetic risk perceptions, stigmatization, and discrimination. The conclusions of these studies, and...


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