Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Can we have our privacy in the era of Genetic advancements

Privacy and confidentiality are one of our most valued possessions. Soon, it might not be possible to hide from society our weaknesses, limitations, and genetic deficiencies. The individuality of each human being is being unmasked.

The completion of the first version of the Human Genome Project, announced in February 2001, unveiled the genomic sequence of the almost 3.2 billion letters of our chromosomes. This announcement also generated discomfort and fear. The revelations of the deficiencies and predispositions coded by human gene sequences are an unsettling idea for many people. The knowledge of the human genome sequence will make possible the diagnosis of several diseases even before their onset. The association between genes and genetic diseases not only affects patients, but it also raises legal and economic issues for society.

In some countries, like Great Britain, the population of some regions has voluntarily donated DNA samples for establishing a genomic database for criminal use. In that country, the ethical perception is that DNA donation for genomic databases is not an invasion of an individual's privacy. In the United States, the situation is completely the opposite: The great majority of the population has a much stronger sense of individuality and so opposes the idea of genetically exposing themselves. However, some genomic databases have been made mandatory in the United States, such as the one at the FBI. In some states, inmates involved in sexual crimes, murders, and other violent crimes have been required to have their DNA profile included in genomics databases. The fear of many people in relation to the loss of their genetic privacy is that the DNA information could be used for discrimination in employment situations or for health and life insurance.

Some geneticists believe that a DNA profile will not only be used to solve crimes, but also to prevent them. They argue that violence is a genetically transmitted trait. Dutch scientists studied a family in the Netherlands with male individuals with outstanding rates of aggressiveness and rape over five generations. The men were found to carry a genetic defect that causes a deficiency of the enzyme serotonin in their brains. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter related to behavior, humor, and personality in humans. Perhaps this is evidence for the existence of genes associated with violence and other antisocial behavior.

A correlation has also been found between atypical levels of serotonin and dopamine with violent behavior and suicide in different studies. The levels of the neurotransmitter are regulated by genetic and environmental factors as well as the interaction between the two factors. The environment is a broad term referring to nongenetic factors contributing to the trait of interest. This can include upbringing, relationships, lifestyle, and other less tangible influences on behavior or health. Current attempts to link violence to genes are more sophisticated and are applied to individual cases and not to population groups. It is believed that, in the near future, genes for violence or dishonesty will be identified, just like the genes related to cancer and other diseases. In reality, even if all the complex human traits like intelligence, violence, honesty, anxiety, and friendliness are mapped and sequenced, they will remain misunderstood for a long time because the understanding of the human mind is still so limited.

Even if the existence of a gene for violence were confirmed, would it be ethically correct to label a child as prone to violence? Would the simple knowledge of that information alter the isolation patterns of society in relation to a carrier of that gene, inducing him or her to become violent? It should be recognized that the manifestation of most traits results not only from genes, but also environmental influence during an individual's life.

Today there are genetic tests for the detection of genes that predispose an individual to the following diseases: sickle cell anemia, Down's syndrome, Huntington's disease, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, colon cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis. The number of diseases for which genetic tests are available continues to grow.

The inclusion of genetic tests results in information on an individual's medical record that could have serious effects in his or her life. Health or life insurance companies might refuse coverage for medical treatments under the allegation of a pre-existing condition. Today, pre-existing conditions only apply to diseases that have already been manifest in the individual; in the future, this might be extended to include the presence of genetic factors linked to specific medical conditions.

Large corporations routinely request intelligence and personality tests for prospective employees. Some people fear that, in the near future, genetic tests will be routinely requested prior to employment. Today, some companies already use genetic tests to identify employees who are sensitive to chemical products used in the work environment. Those companies have argued that the genetic tests are used only to protect their employees from risks related to work, and obviously, to eliminate the risk of being sued for damages in the future. According to the companies, they do not use genetic tests for selection purposes. In the future, companies could opt to increase the number of genetic tests that are mandatory for recruitment. Such tests might reveal personality patterns and could possibly be used for discriminatory means.

Biotechnology has opened the door to our lives, and questions of genetic privacy still remain to be answered. It is now possible to know more about our genetic makeup, but is that necessarily good? This raises many questions about the use of the enormous amount of information that has been made available.

Tags: Bio Technology, Bio Genetics, Bioethics

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