Ignorance or regulation?

December 13, 2009

Article: Affordable genetic mapping of babies by 2019
Source: TimesOnline.com

A tiny prick of a baby’s heel is all scientists need to map the infant’s entire genome.  Currently, the cost can run anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 depending on how many of the 6 billion DNA genes you’d like to map.  In 10 years, the cost will be sub $1000.

By examining genetic variations using genome mapping, doctors can predict illnesses you will be at a higher risk to get later in life.  This includes cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and other dangerous illnesses.  Prevention measures can then be applied accordingly.

From a scientific perspective, it’s simple.  But it’s not that simple when you apply a moral and ethical lens to it.  What if your genome map is disclosed to insurance companies, employers, potential spouses, etc.?  What if it’s used for unintended purposes in the future?

This brings up the much-debated question: should society avoid applying or advancing any thought, technology, or invention that has potentially negative implications?  Most inventions are undoubtedly created and introduced for the benefit of society.  All inventions have the potential of being used incorrectly.  The invention isn’t at fault, but instead, the person’s motives are.  Often time, even the someone’s motives are virtuous, the ramifications of their actions harm society as a whole.  It’s a messy equation that’s more gray than black/white.

One resolution to this dilemma is to regulate who can use genome sequencing and for what purpose.  For example, there is legislation in the works to ban insurance companies and employers from using your genome to make business decisions (i.e. – increase your insurance premiums if your genome mapping data says you’re at a higher risk for a particular disease).  However, corporations are rather resourceful and have legions of highly-paid and connected lawyers and lobbyists who can make wishes come true with time, persistence, and money.  It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when they succeed to do as they please.

So with that in mind, the question is a simple one: should we prevent new inventions and findings from emerging in society for the fear of misuse, or should we rely on regulation to prevent it’s misuse?  Or, is there another solution altogether….?