How long will it be until an idealistic and technically literate researcher deliberately releases genome and trait information publicly in the name of open science?
We now seem to be well on our way.
For just $5 and your acknowledgement of the fact that DNA variations offer limited information (so you really ought to discuss the findings with a doctor or genetic counselor), an online venture called Promethease will provide you with the full explanation of your 23andMe health data in just 15 minutes, FDA be damned.
Promethease acknowledges that “For now, consumers have to fend for themselves in a thicket of scientific information—and make their own decisions about risks.” Apparently, people are happy to do so; the site averages 50-500 reports each day. But the trend to gain access to genetic data isn’t merely coming from “consumers” curious about their own data; it’s also coming from researchers and companies looking to greatly expand their databases to find statistically relevant genetic variants.
Many trait-affecting alleles can only be identified by analyzing huge amounts of data, because each one has a tiny effect. For instance, some 697 variants have been identified that are linked to height, but they are only thought to represent an estimated "16% of the genetic contributors to height.” Other researchers are trying to find genes affecting intelligence (one-twentieth the influence found with height), as well as rare mutations leading to or preventing diseases (hopefully to fare better.)
For example, the Haplotype Reference Consortium was unveiled in San Diego last week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. The consortium includes data collected by 23 other research collaborations and has identified 50 million genetic variants in two years.
While anyone can make use of their haplotype reference panel to expand upon their own data, the Exome Aggregation Consortium, unveiled on the same day, goes even further. This resource has made the entire exome sequencing data of 61,486 unrelated individuals, from “a variety of large-scale sequencing projects,” available to anyone “for the benefit of the wider biomedical community.”
Harvard biologist and prolific blogger Daniel MacArthur’s tweet about the announcement received over 100 “retweets” and was “favorited” nearly as many times. In the comments, people referred to the consortium as a “beautiful resource” that is “simply a game changer.”
Another effort, the Personal Genome Project (PGP) has been leading the charge to develop an open source database of genetic information for years, though their model is on the far end of the spectrum. Every participant not only volunteers their genetic data to the entire world, but their date of birth, gender, weight, height, blood type, race, list of health conditions, medications, allergies, zip code, other family members enrolled, answers to surveys, and even whether they can carry a tune. The fact that one’s full name is omitted is really only a formality, since anyone who wanted to know could easily find it out.
Another critical player in this trend is the Global Alliance. In just over a year, the alliance has expanded to include more than 170 organizational members in a “public-private partnership” representing over 25 nations. Their stated goal is to “unlock the great potential of genomic data,” by sharing all of their data and making “comparisons across millions of human genome sequences.”
Importantly, the trend to “free the data” is a significant antidote to Myriad’s “trade secrets,” but huge challenges remain.
The Personal Genome Project does a pretty good job of outlining the risks involved with sharing your genetic data with the world in its consent form. These include the acknowledgement that you are foregoing privacy, and the acceptance that this means your data could be used as a barrier for you or your family to obtain employment, insurance or financial services; to implicate you or your family in criminal activity; or even to make synthetic DNA based on your genome and plant it at a crime scene to frame you or your family.
But while those who send their sequence to the PGP explicitly consent to these risks, the merging of research databases presents a critically different reality. According to New York Times writer Gina Kolata, “There are no common procedures for assuring that patients consent to sharing their information.” The initiatives have simply moved forward anyway. While some people are pleased to share all of their personal and health information, obviously not everyone is privileged enough to afford that luxury.
Furthermore, with all the talk about “the greater good,” it can be easy to overlook the fact that this information is poised to become really big business. When all of these noble efforts to promote open-access lead to the creation of drugs, tests, and treatments – these findings will be patented, and the wealth that flows from them is unlikely to be quite so “open.”
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
- From Suspects to the Spitterati: A collision of power, profit, and privacy
- NIH Seeks Comments on Plan to Share Genomic Data
- Welcome to the “Genetic Panopticon”