Friday, June 21, 2013

'Omic astronauts' blast off into a new genetic era

By Carol Clark

Ready or not, the ability to rapidly and cheaply sequence the human genome is set to shape our species, both biologically and socially. Some people are early adopters of the technology, eager to jump into this brave new world.

Kristopher Hite, a bio-chemist and a post-doctoral fellow working in a biology lab at Emory, is among these “omic astronauts.” He is heading into unknown territory, full of potential risks and rewards, by having his genome sequenced and added to the public database of the Personal Genome Project (PGP).

Are we on the road to “Gattaca?” The 1997 film is set in a future where genetic databases are used to bio-engineer “ideal” children and sort out the less ideal members of society. In the above video of a Google + Hangout, Hite discusses some of the potential scenarios of the emerging genetic era with Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist and director of the Emory Center for Ethics.

Hite’s interest in the Harvard-based PGP is both scientific and personal. He wants to learn more about his own ancestry while also adding to our general knowledge of genetics.

He checked with his closest family members before joining the project, and they all gave him a green light. Even future family members, however, could be affected by his decision.

“If I have kids, maybe they’ll think I’m crazy for doing it and maybe they’ll resent me,” says the 30-year-old Hite, adding that he could not resist the opportunity of having his genome sequenced for free.

Here is how the PGP sums up its aims on its Web site: “We are recruiting volunteers who are willing to share their genome sequence and many types of personal information with the research community and the general public, so that together we will be better able to advance our understanding of genetic and environmental contributions to human traits.”

Hite has yet to decide whether he will allow the PGP to attach his name to his genetic data. It was among the concerns he discussed in his conversation with Wolpe.

The truth is, no one knows all of the future implications, Wolpe says. On the one hand, genetic data will likely boost opportunities for tailor-made medical treatments that will make today’s health care seem crude by comparison. But every new technology comes with a dark side.

“With your whole genome available to someone, and 20, 30 years from now with really more sophisticated DNA synthesizers, somebody could potentially clone you without your knowledge or consent,” Wolpe says. “As I tell my students, there is no science fiction anymore. There’s virtually nothing that I read about as a kid that I thought was whacky and way out that we’re not doing or trying to do. So I think that we’re opening up a whole new world of not only opportunity and potential but also legal problems and medical problems and certainly security problems.”

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