Research and the Community
In most predictive health projects, researchers need to obtain human biological materials that can be stored for immediate or later use and then linked to detailed health information from medical records. Building biobanks and predictive health research projects requires a supportive public. To succeed researchers need a representative sample of willing participants, good state and institutional policy, and (of course) funding. (This research also benefits from highly motivated advocacy groups such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure.) In a few words, predictive health is one of the most community saturated forms of medical research to date.
The great good that will be accomplished by predictive health research, with its ability to forecast a person’s health future with reasonable probability, must be pursued with careful consideration. These studies raise ethical, legal, and social questions beyond the scope of the current paradigm of medical research. Very basic examples of these questions include: What do researchers do when they find that an individual tests positive for a gene or other biomarker that puts them at significant risk for a disease in the future? Can an individual’s biological material be used first to study one type of disease or treatment and then later another? What protections need to be in place to ensure that the sensitive information in an individual’s health record and genes does not result in employment or health insurance discrimination?
The Pace of Translation
While questions like these may seem very scary when rattled off one after the other, the truth is that predictive health is the future of medicine--a future that hopes to fulfill the ambitions of the human genome project, by providing an individual with a personalized assessment of risk and response to treatment. The human genome project succeeded in decoding a great deal of information, but what that information means for individuals with heart disease, a family history of cancer, or a smoking addiction, has not been answered. If current research succeeds, this information will be translated into real clinical applications in the not too distant future. Research looking to define these types of predictors is well underway at most universities--some, as exemplified by Emory's Predictive Health Initiative and the TGen (Translational Genomics) project in Arizona, have worked to establish comprehensive predictive health research programs. Meanwhile, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported many (up to 1,400) genetic tests are already available for individuals interested in assessing their risks for a number of diseases. Moreover, many specific predictive tests are already being used to chart treatment paradigms in hospital care.
PredictER Engaging the Community
Still, the fact that predictive health is occurring does not answer any of the concerns voiced earlier. These are concerns that the PredictER program at the IU Center for Bioethics is working to address. On November 2nd, PredictER convened a panel of 35 experts and community advocates to begin to give shape to many of these concerns and to explore ways to reach out to the community, build collaboration, and encourage research while protecting individual and public interests. While the panel of experts shared an understanding of the progress of predictive health, it took an entire day of brainstorming and discussion to reach consensus on what issues may be present with respect to engaging the community. In the end, it was clear that predictive health will require physicians, researchers, and the community to join in constructive, mutually beneficial work. In the near future a white paper will be published by the Center for Bioethics with a more detailed account of the November 2nd event. This paper will also introduce the next step in PredictER's community outreach mission--a plan to engage central Indiana community leaders and to listen to their concerns about the future of predictive health research. -- Patrick Barrett