WASHINGTON (AP) — It sounds like a scene from a TV show: Someone sends a discarded coffee cup to a laboratory where the unwitting drinker’s DNA is decoded, predicting what diseases lurk in his or her future.
A presidential commission found that’s legally possible in about half the states — and says new protections to ensure the privacy of people’s genetic information are critical if the nation is to realize the enormous medical potential of gene-mapping.
Such whole genome sequencing costs too much now for that extreme coffee-cup scenario to be likely. But the report being released Thursday says the price is dropping so rapidly that the technology could become common in doctors’ offices very soon — and there are lots of ethical issues surrounding how, when and with whom the results may be shared.
Without public trust, people may not be as willing to allow scientists to study their genetic information, key to learning to better fight disease, the report warns.
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“If this issue is left unaddressed, we could all feel the effects,” said Dr. Amy Gutmann, who chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
Mapping entire genomes now is done primarily for research, as scientists piece together which genetic mutations play a role in various diseases. It’s different than getting a lab test to see if you carry, say, a single gene known to cause breast cancer.
Gutmann said her commission investigated ahead of an anticipated boom in genome sequencing as the price drops from thousands today to about $1,000, cheaper than running a few individual gene tests.
The sheer amount of information in a whole genome increases the privacy concerns. For example, people may have their genomes sequenced to study one disease that runs in the family, only to learn they’re also at risk for something else — with implications for relatives who may not have wanted to know.