I knew I wanted to be a part of Genomes Unzipped from the very first day Daniel told me about the project. But the decision to actually participate was more complicated.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past five years thinking about the benefits and risks of personal and public genomics. By sheer good luck I became an advisor to the Personal Genome Project (PGP) in its early days, long before PGP-1 (George Church) was joined by so many others (the arrival of the PGP-1K was announced yesterday) interested in exploring public genomics. As a result of that connection, I have been able to continue to work with the PGP, exploring the issues raised by public genomics research as they arose, often for the first time, in connection with that project. And as part of my day job I edit an online publication (the Genomics Law Report) and advise clients—both focused on issues arising at the intersection of personalized medicine, genomics and the law.
As a result of all of this time spent thinking and writing about personal and public genomics, I’ve come to know a few things. I know that I believe the benefits of public genomics, for both science and society, to outweigh the risks. I also know that I might be wrong about that, but I know that I’m comfortable accepting that risk, too. I know that I want to support personal and public genomics projects. Most of all, I know the decision to join a project like Genomes Unzipped is not mine alone.
Before agreeing to participate in Genomes Unzipped, I knew I would need to seek—and receive—permission from my family. There was no legal requirement that I obtain their consent before joining the Genomes Unzipped team and, ultimately, publishing my genetic data for the world to review. But that did nothing to change the strong personal obligation I felt to seek my family’s consent.
While my genetic information is personal to me, it could also have something important to say about my family members. The strong likelihood was that it would not, particularly once you diluted the limited predictive value of most genetic markers with a hefty dose of uncertain utility and a large helping of additional uncertainty thanks to the fact that I share, on average, only 50% of my genome with each of my family members. But while I could calculate that risk as small, and accept it for myself, I could not unilaterally accept it on behalf of each member of my family.
Knowing that, I set out to talk to my family about Genomes Unzipped and my interest in participating in the project, and to learn whether that was a decision they would each be willing to support. Spoiler alert: there is no surprise ending here. You would not be reading this post if any member of my family had not fully supported my decision to join Genomes Unzipped.