Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Age of Genomics

By Ainsley Newson

This edition of Australasian Science focuses on the ethical, legal and social issues associated with advances in genomic science.

Faster and more accurate sequencing of human genomes; smaller and smarter wearable technologies; an increasingly connected world; direct access to health testing; improvements in data storage. These are just some recent innovations now influencing Australian health care and society, and this issue of Australasian Science focuses on their associated social, ethical and legal issues.

Some have called for the genomes of all newborn babies to be sequenced. David Amor and I take a critical look at this idea (p.12) and argue that, despite its potential benefits, genome sequencing is not yet appropriate for wide population use – on scientific, economic and ethical grounds.

We also need to learn more about the impact of genomic information. Amelia Smit and Anne Cust (p.15) look at whether people change their health behaviours after receiving individual risk information. While existing evidence doesn’t show much difference, there are problems with these studies. We also don’t know enough about the psychological impact of this information.

Genomic science has much to offer Indigenous Australians, yet Emma Kowal and colleagues write that poor research practice in the past has led to mistrust (p.18). The National Centre for Indigenous Genomics is fostering the development of genomics for Indigenous Australians, and is supporting Indigenous people to consider careers in genomics and promoting Indigenous Australians as partners in research.

The ease of obtaining and testing our genome has led to an expanding Australian market for personal genome testing. Jacqueline Savard (p.21) outlines her research on people’s motivations for testing and the impact it may have. Kathleen Gray (p.24) looks at the phenomenon of sharing our genome information online and how this fits in with the global “quantified self” movement. Is this the ultimate in democracy or commercial manipulation? Sylvia Metcalfe (p.27) introduces the Genioz study, which is investigating the knowledge and attitudes of Australians towards these tests . While there is a lot of hype about this testing, there’s also a lot we don’t yet know.

Dianne Nicol (p.30) looks at concerns over patenting. While fears about gene patenting leading to exclusions in research or testing are so far unfounded, this may change. Many countries, including Australia, are starting to see restrictions on what can be patented – leading to novel methods to protect intellectual property.

This edition ends with two articles that examine the influence of a connected global world in this area. Paul Mason and colleagues (p.33) discuss biobanking in a global context, and find there is an urgent need to resolve many technical, ethical and economic issues. Megan Munsie and colleagues raise several concerns about stem cell tourism (p.36), not least being risks of harm from purchasing unproven treatments.

While these technologies are here to stay, many of their applications are not yet ready to go mainstream. The challenge is to work together to ensure that these exciting innovations are used to benefit the well-being of all Australians. This requires a national conversation. Enjoy the issue!

Ainsley Newson is Guest Editor of this edition of Australasian Science.