Risks of obtaining and sharing your genome sequence
The era of personal genomics will transform our notions of risk in many ways. In the realm of health and medicine, we will soon have much more specific information about our baseline risk for a health outcome, such as a disease or a pharmaceutical drug response, and how it is influenced by our DNA and modulated by other factors like physiology, lifestyle, and environment. At some point, we will have health risk profiles that prioritize and sort risks according to severity, immediacy, and whether effective strategies are available for managing them with pharmaceuticals, lifestyle modifications, or other medical interventions. There might even be a richter scale for genomics one day. This vision of the future is often referred to as “personalized medicine”.
Genome sequences are an important source of fuel for powering the engine of translational medicine and driving the transformation of how we understand and manage health risks. But before anyone can step on the accelerator toward personalized medicine, people need to be willing to actually obtain and share personal genome sequences. Without this willingness, personalized medicine faces an energy crisis – a shortage of genomic fuel – and may putter or stall. Where will this willingness come from?
Roadmap to Willingness
Unlike personalized medicine, which has a coterie of visionaries and an abundance of roadmaps, each with their own devotees, no “roadmap to willingness” exists as far as I can tell. So, how do we build one? What are the ingredients of a roadmap?
The same three ingredients are needed to get nearly any enterprise off the ground, as I heard recently in a wonderful talk by Doug Solomon of IDEO (here). They are feasibility, desirability, and viability. And you really need all three, having just one or two doesn’t cut it.
To get to willingness, personal genomics needs to be cheap (feasible), useful (desirable), and safe (viable). As far as I’m concerned, two out of three ingredients are in the bag. There are tremendously productive forces working to make genomes both cheap and useful. While personal genomics may not be fantastically cheap or fantastically useful at this moment, we’re on a clear path to get there (and quickly).
The ingredient that could use some serious inspiration is safety. After all, what should be sought is not a “roadmap to willingness” that is just blinky lights and siren songs, but a “roadmap for informed willingness” that includes well-marked signs, off-ramps, and rest areas (for slow drivers with small bladders).
Where the rubber meets the road
Some influential policy-wonks are still spending their energy questioning whether or not we *should* as a society be pursuing personal genomics at all. Then there are those who have gotten past that and take for granted, as they should, that large numbers of people will desire and seek personal genome sequencing. Yet, I still have the overwhelming sense that we are very much stuck in a stage of facile hand-wringing about the implications of obtaining and sharing personal genome sequences and that these activities tend to be more oriented toward sending people into some sort of existential apoplexy than they are a potential source of pragmatic guidance.
We are at the point in history where the rubber is about to meet the road for personal genome sequencing. So, I would like to advocate that we spend more time rounding out this roadmap. We should begin with a meditation about risk and consider the calculus an individual would need in order to weigh the tradeoffs between taking the personal genomics plunge right now or standing on the sidelines for another day.
The month of December I plan to focus my blogging efforts, nearing one blog post per day (assuming I’m not paralyzed by some existential crisis, fingers crossed), on my thoughts about the risks of obtaining and sharing personal genetic information. I hope you’ll join me.
P.S. The Venn diagram above was created on the fly via the recently released Google Chart API — an incredibly easy-to-use way to add graphic bling to any blog. Here is the coded URL, in case you want to play with the Venn Diagram on your own.