Open Personal Genomics versus the sales pitch

To [George] Church, open consent isn’t just a philosophical consideration; it’s also a practical one. If the PGP (Personal Genome Project)were locked down, it would be far less valuable as a data source for research — and the pace of research would accordingly be much slower. By making the information open and available, Church hopes to draw curious scientists to the data to pursue their own questions and reach their own insights. The potential fields of inquiry range from medicine to genealogy, forensics, and general biology.

And the openness doesn’t serve just researchers alone. PGP members will be seen as not only subjects, but as participants. So, for instance, if a researcher uses a volunteer’s information to establish a link between some genetic sequence and a risk of disease, the volunteer would have that information communicated to them.

This is precisely what makes the PGP controversial in genetics circles. Though Church talks about it as the logical successor to the Human Genome Project, other geneticists see it as a risky proposition, not for its privacy policy but for its presumption that the emerging science of genomics already has implications for individual cases. The National Human Genome Research Institute, for example, has cautioned that the burgeoning personal-genomics industry, which includes research-oriented projects like the PGP as well as straight-to-consumer companies like Navigenics and 23andMe and whole-genome-sequencing shops like Knome, puts the sales pitch ahead of the science. “A lot of people would like to rapidly capitalize on this science,” says Gregory Feero, a senior adviser at the NHGRI. “But for an individual venturing into this now, it’s a risk to start making any judgments or decisions based on current knowledge. At some point, we’ll cross over into a time when that’s more sensible.”

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