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Open Access Debate

Personal genome testing: Test characteristics to clarify the discourse on ethical, legal and societal issues

Eline M Bunnik1, Maartje HN Schermer1* and A Cecile JW Janssens2

Author Affiliations

1 Dept. of Medical Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Erasmus University Medical Center, Office AE-340, PO Box 2040, 3000 CA Rotterdam, The Netherlands

2 Dept. of Epidemiology, Erasmus University Medical Center, Office EE-21-40b, PO Box 2040, 3000 CA Rotterdam, The Netherlands

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BMC Medical Ethics 2011, 12:11  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-12-11

Published: 14 June 2011

Abstract

Background

As genetics technology proceeds, practices of genetic testing have become more heterogeneous: many different types of tests are finding their way to the public in different settings and for a variety of purposes. This diversification is relevant to the discourse on ethical, legal and societal issues (ELSI) surrounding genetic testing, which must evolve to encompass these differences. One important development is the rise of personal genome testing on the basis of genetic profiling: the testing of multiple genetic variants simultaneously for the prediction of common multifactorial diseases. Currently, an increasing number of companies are offering personal genome tests directly to consumers and are spurring ELSI-discussions, which stand in need of clarification. This paper presents a systematic approach to the ELSI-evaluation of personal genome testing for multifactorial diseases along the lines of its test characteristics.

Discussion

This paper addresses four test characteristics of personal genome testing: its being a non-targeted type of testing, its high analytical validity, low clinical validity and problematic clinical utility. These characteristics raise their own specific ELSI, for example: non-targeted genetic profiling poses serious problems for information provision and informed consent. Questions about the quantity and quality of the necessary information, as well as about moral responsibilities with regard to the provision of information are therefore becoming central themes within ELSI-discussions of personal genome testing. Further, the current low level of clinical validity of genetic profiles raises questions concerning societal risks and regulatory requirements, whereas simultaneously it causes traditional ELSI-issues of clinical genetics, such as psychological and health risks, discrimination, and stigmatization, to lose part of their relevance. Also, classic notions of clinical utility are challenged by the newer notion of 'personal utility.'

Summary

Consideration of test characteristics is essential to any valuable discourse on the ELSI of personal genome testing for multifactorial diseases. Four key characteristics of the test - targeted/non-targeted testing, analytical validity, clinical validity and clinical utility - together determine the applicability and the relevance of ELSI to specific tests. The paper identifies and discusses four areas of interest for the ELSI-debate on personal genome testing: informational problems, risks, regulatory issues, and the notion of personal utility.