Students Examine Ethical Questions Related to Cracking the Human Genetic Code

    The Human Genome Project has enabled people to learn about some of their medical predispositions, and is giving scientists a roadmap to discover disease cures and preventions.

    This development – the sequencing of human DNA — is ripe with the potential to do much good for humanity, according to Hyi-gyung “Clara” Kim, assistant professor of biology at Southern. But she quickly adds that it also carries risks for abuse and raises new ethical questions. It even poses personal questions about whether someone wants to know if they are predisposed to a particular illness, particularly if those assessments are considered precise barometers of lifetime risk.

    “The ethical, legal, and medical questions that will be generated in the years ahead with this technological development make it important for people to be aware of the potential personal and societal ramifications that are involved,” Kim says.

    As a result, she created a new course called “DNA as Destiny: Genetics and Society” that is being taught this fall. While only biology majors are taking the class during this semester, the university may open the class to non-science majors in the future.

    Some of the types of questions being examined in this class by students include:

    • Will doctors and hospitals limit access to these personal genetic records, or will they disclose them to others?
    • What are the ethics of trying to create designer babies by using the enhanced genetic information?
    • If someone is genetically predisposed at a high level to becoming a psychopath, should society intervene to prevent that person from harming others or himself, or presume innocence until an act is committed? (Reliable markers to show a person’s predisposition to mental illness do not yet exist, but are likely to be found in the years ahead.)
    • Should insurance companies be made aware of someone’s genome so that it can adjust insurance rates, or not?

    Kim says society will have to address these and other moral and ethical questions.

    She says as a result of the Human Genome Project, completed more than a decade ago, a person’s risk can be accurately assessed for several physical diseases, such as with Huntington Disease, breast cancer and cystic fibrosis. The risk for other illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, cannot yet be predicted with the same accuracy, but that will likely change.

    “It’s a fascinating time and this technology has the potential to help improve the quality of human lives, as well as longevity,” Kim says. “But there are risks and challenges that come with it, so we need to start considering the ethical questions that are just beginning to surface.”