Friday Links

Nature ran an excellent story on the rise of genetic hobbyist-bloggers, featuring our own Joe Pickrell’s discovery of his Jewish heritage as well as the impressive efforts of bloggers Dienekes and David Wesolowski to explore human ancestry using publicly available large-scale genetic data, which finishes with a comparison by George Church between genomics blogging and the early days of social networks:

Church argues that better access to high-quality data could help this kind of informal bioinformatics to flourish, enabling computer-savvy people to make important contributions to genomics, just as they have with online businesses such as Facebook. “It didn’t take that much training to become a social-networking entrepreneur. You just had to be a good coder,” he says. With bioinformatics, “I think we’re in a similar position.”

Ion Torrent logoDNA sequencing news this week was dominated by the commercial launch of the fancy new machine from Ion Torrent and the announcement of $1 million prizes for home-brew improvements to the work-flow, throughput and accuracy of the embryonic platform. Nick Loman cast a skeptical eye over the output from the Ion Torrent PR machine, and particularly the competition, asking “Is this helping democratise sequencing, or is it a cynical tactic to get cheap R&D?” At the other end of the cynicism-naivete spectrum, Harvard molecular biologist Gary Ruvkun pondered sending an Ion Torrent to Mars to sequence the (hypothetical) DNA sprinkled across its dusty terrain.

At the Huffington Post, Misha Angrist (author of the new book Here is a Human Being) wrote a prescription for overcoming society’s fear of genetics, arguing that the plummeting prices of genetic analysis and open-access projects like the Personal Genomes Project “will inevitably help to lift the shroud that has enveloped human heredity in the public consciousness”. He finishes with this:

Some people will remain squeamish, apprehensive or otherwise uninterested in their own genomes. That is their right: I would not presume to judge them, let alone force them to look at their DNA. But chances are good that their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will have their entire genomes sequenced at birth. If we want that to happen in a way that leaves those kids neither mystified nor stigmatized, then the rhetoric of fear does none of us any favors.

John Hawks pondered the impact of advances in technology potentially allowing high school students to do high-throughput genomics in the classroom:

For the price of one R01 grant, kids across a whole state might develop a new model organism, learn the principles of genomics and produce the data equivalent of dozens of research papers.

Finally, this ode to genetic inadequacy by the Bioscience Resource Project, written by two plant geneticists who believe that genetics play no role in common human disease, drew sharp criticism from the genomics blogosphere. Open Helix reacted first, Luke waded in to explain a fundamental statistical misunderstanding in the post’s treatment of twin studies, and Daniel pointed out the large number of  inaccuracies in the piece.

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1 Response to “Friday Links”

  • Jeffrey Shuren, Genome Sequencing Expert

    It didn’t take that much training to become a social-networking entrepreneur. You just had to be a good coder…With bioinformatics, “I think we’re in a similar position.

    Unfortunately, Church is wrong. The FDA recently stated in a court filing that “There is No Right to Consume or Feed Children Any Particular Food”, “There is No Generalized Right to Bodily and Physical Health”, and “There is No Fundamental Right to Freedom of Contract”.

    b. There is No Generalized Right to Bodily and Physical Health.
    Plaintiffs’ assertion of a “fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health, which includes what foods they do and do not choose to consume for themselves and their families” is similarly unavailing because plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish. In addition, courts have consistently refused to extrapolate a generalized right to “bodily and physical health” from the Supreme Court’s narrow substantive due process precedents regarding abortion, intimate relations, and the refusal of lifesaving medical treatment. See Glucksberg, 521 U.S. at 721 (warning that the fact “[t]hat many of the rights and liberties protected by the Due Process Clause sound in personal autonomy does not warrant the sweeping conclusion that any and all important, intimate, and personal decisions are so protected”); see also Cowan v. United States, 5 F. Supp. 2d 1235, 1242 (N.D. Okla. 1998) (rejecting a claim that the plaintiff had the fundamental “right to take whatever treatment he wishes due to his terminal condition regardless of whether the FDA approves the treatment”). Finally, even if such a right did exist, it would not render FDA’s regulations unconstitutional because prohibiting the interstate sale and distribution of unpasteurized milk promotes “bodily and physical health.”

    c. There is No Fundamental Right to Freedom of Contract.
    In arguing that FDA’s regulations violate substantive due process because they interfere with plaintiffs’ “contract rights” by “restricting the use of an agent to accomplish what the principal herself out to be free to do,” plaintiffs ask this Court to resuscitate long-dead, Lochner-era jurisprudence. See Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U.S. 726, 729 (1963) (“There was a time when the Due Process Clause was used by this Court to strike down laws which were thought . . . incompatible with some particular economic or social philosophy,” but that doctrine “has long since been discarded.”). Plaintiffs’ anachronistic invitation should be rejected.

    If the FDA is blocking terminal cancer patients from opting out of its paternal embrace, and if it is rejecting freedom of contract as an “anachronistic invitation”, Dr. Church and any entrepreneurs in this space are sadly mistaken if they think that this FDA is going to allow people to hire others to sequence or analyze their own genomes.

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