Alexa is a fellow in the Precision Medicine: Ethics, Policy, and Culture project through Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. The following is her reflection on the ongoing discussion around the Precision Medicine Initiative that has been the subject of recent political, social, and popular media attention. A recent presentation by Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, PhD, from the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University spurred our multi-disciplinary discussion of some of the following themes.
What is normal, anyway?
Genetically speaking, that’s precisely the question that the Obama administration’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) seeks to answer. In recruiting and collecting comprehensive genetic, medical, behavioral, and lifestyle data from one million Americans, the scientific and medical communities will be better able to understand what constitutes normal genetic variation within the population, and in turn, what amount of variation causes or contributes to disease or disease risk. Using this data, researchers could potentially create tailored approaches for intervention and treatment of an incredible range of diseases.
The PMI has a secondary aim: to increase the representation of previously underrepresented populations in research – primarily African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Inclusion of these groups in research has been a challenge for decades, with lack of access, distrust in the medical and research systems, and institutionalized racism all playing exclusionary roles. More broadly, outside of the government initiative, the promise of precision medicine ultimately seeks to alleviate disparities by finding and addressing supposed genetic differences, and empowering people with information to take responsibility for their health.