Bioethics Blogs

The Privacy Conundrum And Genomic Research: Re-Identification And Other Concerns

No matter what the arena — finance, health care, or national security — questions surrounding the provision of personal data are always the same:  how much benefit vs. how much risk?  Who handles these data, and can those individuals be trusted?  How do organizations guard against data misuse?   What are the legal safeguards to protect privacy, and are they sufficient in an era when more data are shared more widely?

Nowhere is the privacy discussion more personal than in genomics, the very hardwiring of our existence.  Genomic data are unique to individuals (or identical twins) and, except for occasional mutations, do not change over a lifetime, thereby rendering disclosures permanent.  Genomic data also have special properties regarding privacy, especially as comprehensive whole genome sequencing becomes the major technique.

The benefits of amassing genomic data in sufficient case numbers for validity and making this knowledge available to an appropriately wide body of expert investigators are extensive. Research derived from genomic databases offers potentially large health payoffs.  Genomics can help scientists predict who will develop a disease (e.g., Huntington’s disease) and tailor treatments.  It also holds the potential to bring about a paradigm shift in how we think about and classify disease; i.e., allowing us to move from the pathology-based approach begun in the late 19th century — which focuses on the progression of disease in a specific organto a biochemical-and genomics-based approach.  This new approach is already being applied to a number of diseases, including certain cancers.

Yet the damage caused by the misuse of genomic data can be irreparable.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.