There are fears that 'personal genomics' will develop as a tool for the rich and famous, rather than for the benefit of humanity at large, according to a news article in the journal Nature. At a recent scientific meeting, 454 Life Sciences, a US based sequencing technology company, reported that it has sequenced the entire genome of DNA pioneer James Watson. Geneticist Craig Venter is also reported to have sequenced his own genome, and says he has submitted it to the database Genbank prior to publication later this year.
The 'race' to sequence individual human genomes stepped up a gear last year, when the US Archon X Prize Foundation offered a $10m prize for the first company to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. It is hoped that the sequencing of individual human genomes will lead to a new age of personalised medicine; where prevention, diagnosis and treatment are tailored to the individual's unique genetic code. Initially, however, people will not learn much from the sequencing of their genome. Scientists are just beginning to interpret genetic information and currently know the genetic signature of very few diseases. The hope is however, that once sequencing the human genome becomes quick and affordable, the analysis of massive amounts of genetic data will facilitate greater understanding of how our genetic makeup influences our health.
Some fear that if the first sequenced genomes are of the rich and famous this will send the wrong message to the wider public - that genomics is for the benefit of the very privileged, rather than the general public. Francis Collins, head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute told Nature: 'If all the sequences obtained over the next year or two are done on scientists with strong financial positions, that will send a message quite contrary to what the genome project aimed to achieve'. Others argue that sequencing scientists' genomes first will defuse public anxiety about the potential misuse of genetic information. The review board that approved another sequencing project, run by George Church of Harvard University, is reported in Nature to have said that 'only people with a masters degree in genetics, or the equivalent, should be allowed to volunteer to ensure that they understand the implications'.
A future world in which everyone has access to their unique genetic code raises potential problems around the ownership of and use of genetic information. For example, knowledge of an individual's genetic make up has implications for that person's blood relatives, because it could reveal certain inherited genetic susceptibilities. The decision to know about one's genetic makeup is a very personal decision and some people may not wish to know, for example, that they have genetic predispositions to life-threatening diseases. There are also fears that genetic information could be misused by employers and insurance companies; or that people will start choosing their reproductive partners partly on the basis of their genetic makeup.