Legal, ethical issues of genetics discussed

Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 10, 2003

Every person carries within him- or herself one of the hottest legal controversies in America. Genetic identification and the moral and ethical questions it raises were the topic of Friday's "Life Sciences, Technology, and the Law Symposium" at the Law School.

The symposium attempted to educate the public about issues involved in genetic research. Matt Mock, editor in chief of The Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, which sponsored the event, said there are no easy answers to questions about genetics. "There are a lot of answers but every answer brings up more questions," he said, comparing genetics to Pandora's box.

Executive Editor and conference chair Larry LaVanway said the Law Review timed the event to coincide with construction of the Life Sciences Institute.

"We wanted to tap into the energy that's on this campus with the Life Sciences Institute," Mock said.

The symposium consisted of a keynote speaker followed by three panels and closing remarks. The panels dealt with life sciences in the court, the regulation of life sciences and what was referred to as "technology transfer," the process of turning new research into marketable products.

Keynote speaker Philip Reilly, president of the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics and the CEO of Interleukin Genetics, Inc., gave a broad overview of the evolving role of genetics and the questions this evolution raises. "Genetic information is affecting the activities that are held most closely to our hearts," he said, noting that genetics can even affect how we evaluate each other as people. "We underestimate the role genes play."

Confidentiality of genetic information was one topic discussed in detail by Reilly and panelists. "I am highly confident that confidentiality as we know it will be rewritten in the next decade by genetics," Reilly said.

Speakers in the first panel pointed out that genetic information is unlike widely-used identifiers such as fingerprints because it is familial - parents and children have similar genes. This raises medical confidentiality concerns. For instance, if a person develops Huntington's disease, siblings carry a 50 percent chance of developing the disease. Does a doctor have a moral obligation to inform family members in this situation?

Another issue raised was the existence of genetic databases of convicted felons created for research and criminal justice purposes. Reilly and law and sociology Prof. Richard Lempert, a panelist, said there is a possibility that future arrestees or even all infants could be tested and have their genetic information added to the database.

The role of universities in generating life science innovation was another key issue. Panelist Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, said he felt the question facing universities was balancing commercial interest with academia. "The basic issue becomes (whether) universities are too commercial," he said. "You balance that against ... the belief that without marketing, research will never reach the public."