Panel to discuss genomics and ethics at Ethics Center event

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Photo of WMU's Center for the Humanities.

Center for the Humanities (Photo credit: College of Arts and Sciences)

KALAMAZOO—A panel of ethicists will explore developments in genomics during a presentation this month at Western Michigan University as part of the Center for the Study of Ethics in Society's spring season.

The discussion, titled "Breakthroughs in Genomics and Ethics," is at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, in the University Center for the Humanities, 2500 Knauss Hall. The three panelists include Drs. Shirley Bach and Michael Pritchard, WMU professor emeritus and professor, respectively, of philosophy, and Dr. Elaine Englehardt, distinguished professor of ethics at Utah Valley University.

Genomics is the genetics discipline that includes efforts to determine the entire DNA sequence of organisms and fine-scale genetic mapping. A new generation of DNA sequencing tools has drastically reduced the cost of their use in genomic research in general, and especially in exome, or protein-coding, sequencing within the genome. So the pace of research is growing rapidly.

Conflicts of interest, other concerns

The panel presentation will focus on the ethical implications of how information gained from exome sequencing should be used, both in research and in clinical settings. Some of the ethical concerns include potential conflicts of interest of physicians who use their patients as participants in research and communication challenges for clinicians who have to determine whether and how to inform patients of findings, especially when patients—and perhaps even the patients' primary care physicians--do not know how best to interpret the practical significance of the results.

The panelists will present and discuss a case study on research in the area of severe visual impairment by researchers proposing to use exome findings from their patients in their research as well as in providing them with clinical advice. However, in exome sequencing, researchers can also expect to uncover many incidental findings—findings that are apparently unrelated to the information originally sought. That raises ethical questions about sharing such information with research subjects and patients. A vital concern is how this information should be conveyed, especially since many physicians and clinicians are not yet well prepared to communicate with patients about the possible significance of exomic findings.

For more information about the series, visit wmich.edu/ethics.