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The Environmental Genome Project and Bioethics

From: Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal
Volume 9, Number 2, June 1999
pp. 175-188 | 10.1353/ken.1999.0014

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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9.2 (1999) 175-188

Bioethics Inside the Beltway

Eight years ago, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal published a brief selection by Eric Juengst (1991) entitled "The Human Genome Project and Bioethics." That essay introduced and described the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) Program at the National Center for Human Genome Research. Since that time, the ELSI program has grown to become one of the largest and most well regarded bioethics programs in the country, sponsoring the work of hundreds of researchers and coordinating bioethics activities both nationally and internationally (Marshall 1996; Meslin, Thomson, and Boyer 1997). In 1991, however, Juengst, the first director of the ELSI program, had no way of anticipating these developments. Juengst's goal in his essay was simply to highlight some of the moral and social issues that were emerging as focal points for the ELSI program. Looking back, the issues he outlined may seem vague and overly broad. At the time, however, the essay served an important purpose, to identify areas requiring additional study and thereby to serve as a guide to others interested in joining in these discussions.

In many ways, Juengst's article serves as an inspiration to those of us working on a new bioethics project. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) recently launched a multi-year project aimed at better understanding genetic influences on environmentally associated diseases (Albers 1997; Brown and Hartwell 1998; Cannon 1997; Kaiser 1997). This project, known as the Environmental Genome Project (EGP), plans to identify and study a number of common genetic variants that may play an important role in determining how individuals respond to environmental exposures. NIEHS hopes that the information learned through the EGP will be instrumental in developing more effective disease-prevention strategies and intervention programs. Following the precedent developed in connection with the Human Genome Project, NIEHS also plans to address the moral and social implications of the EGP. Efforts in this regard include sponsoring workshops and conferences to address such issues, as well as supporting research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of the EGP. Through this work, NIEHS hopes to anticipate potential problems before they arise and to develop policies that maximize the benefits of the research while avoiding potential misuses of the information learned.

In exploring the social implications of the EGP, we at NIEHS are very fortunate to be able to draw upon the work being done by the ELSI program at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), as well as the ever-expanding bioethics literature that has been sparked by the ELSI program. Still, there is much to be done and this is an exciting time for those of us involved with the EGP. Many of the ethical, legal, and social implications of the project are only beginning to become clearer, and several of these issues appear quite different from the sorts of concerns that have previously been discussed in connection with other types of genetic research.

This essay highlights some of the ethical, legal, and social implications that are emerging as important focal points for the Environmental Genome Project. Like Juengst's 1991 paper, the goal of this article is to provide an overview of current areas of interest and to encourage others to join us in thinking about these difficult issues.

The Environmental Genome Project

Individuals differ greatly in their responses to chemicals, drugs, radiation, smoking, alcohol, and other environmental exposures. These differential responses are the result of complex interactions between many factors, including an individual's genetic make-up, age, sex, nutritional status, and overall health. The EGP aims to better understand the genetic basis of differential responses to environmental exposures. The vast majority of diseases, many forms of cancer, for example, are the consequence of both environmental and genetic contributions (Perera 1997). Hence, understanding the relationships between genetic variation and response to environmental exposure is important for understanding the causes of human disease and is crucial for the development of effective disease-prevention strategies.

The EGP and projects like it represent a new stage of genomic research. It is expected that the Human Genome Project will complete a "working draft" of the...

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