Thursday, June 5, 2008

ELSI After Francis Collins: What Now?

In an editorial published today, "This time it's personal" (Nature 453, 697 (2008) | doi:10.1038/453697a ), Nature adds to the many comments on Francis Collins's announcement that he will step down from his 15 year position as head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Like most comments on Collins's career at NHGRI, the editorial praises the leader for his ambition, political acumen, and emphasis on the ethical implications of genomic research. In addition to leading the Institute to the successful sequencing of the genome in 2003, Collins helped to initiated the International HapMap Project, ENCODE, and the 1,000 Genomes Project. He also lobbied for the passage of GINA (H.R. 493) and was a constant advocate for the inclusion of public outreach and ethics education in genomic research.

Collins's emphasis on the ethical issues and the NHGRI's ELSI program laid the conceptual groundwork that informs much of the work we do here at PredictER. In fact, thanks to the support of The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, Inc, the Indiana University Center for Bioethics has been answering Collins's call to address the ethical implications of genetic and genomic research by focusing on both research ethics and medical ethics as the science is translated into current and future predictive health care.

The editorial also mentions some of the challenges that the next director of NHGRI will face. These challenges include a shrinking budget and waning political support:

Although Collins says he has no concrete plans … the future of NHGRI is more cloudy than his own. The funding situation of the NIH has been gloomy for years, with flat budgets stifling many potentially worthy projects. And with Collins gone, the NHGRI may become more of a target for politicians who feel it has run its course.

Of course, the challenges also include existing and unanticipated ethical and legal issues. As the Nature editorial notes: "Genomics is now at a point where the science and technology are moving much faster than society's ability to assimilate and make sense of the information".

One challenge that this editorial does not mention directly, but seems, nevertheless, to be implied by the shrinking public budget, is the fact that much predictive health research will be (and currently is) receiving commercial support. This should not be a surprise. If we want genomic research to result in better personalized medicine, we should expect that the life science industry will invest in the research. At the same time, however, there's no better moment than now to accelerate the investigation of the specific ethical issues of doing commercially supported genomic and predictive health research. For example, here are a few questions that jump to my mind:

Must a research biobank disclose to donors in the informed consent policy that research results may result in commercial products?

Must or should these biobanks share the income from tissue or data sales with donors?

Should pharmacogenomic companies and other patent holders be expected to share financial rewards with research participants or even with the communities to which these participants belong? - J.O.

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