Can society handle the "mind-boggling" amount of genetic data now available?

Mark Walport, the head of the UK’s Wellcome Trust, was giving interviews earlier this week on a number of news programmes in order to get the public thinking again about the issues raised by the “mind boggling” amount of genetic information that is now available. As he put it, the first human genome took 10 years and three quarter of a million pounds to  sequence; currently the Sanger centre just outside Cambridge is sequencing 2-3 human genomes a day. A number of commercial companies already offer sequencing of parts of a genome; it’s likely that full genome sequences will be available in the near future.

What does all this information mean for the privacy of individuals, or for their families, never mind society at large? As Walport pointed out, information about individuals of course has implications for other family members. What is clear is that, as so often in the past, when a technological leap is made, the ethical framework for handling the scientific advance is lagging behind the technology itself. As genetic information becomes more cheaply and readily available, and especially as it increasingly moves into the realm of private venture, the need to develop robust ethical oversight is becoming even more urgent.

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