If Whole Genome Sequencing is So Cheap and Quick, Why Shouldn’t Everyone Have It Done?

Bioethics in the News purple and teal icon

This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

The headline in New York Times Magazine reads: “Scientists can now sequence an entire genome overnight.” This is amazing. It took ten years and $3 billion to do the first mapping of the human genome, all three billion base pairs. Today the entire genome of any individual can be mapped for less than $1000. Why is that important? There are preventative, diagnostic, therapeutic, reproductive, and public health reasons. The public health reasons are most evident with the speed with which all the variants of COVID-19 have been mapped.

Having one’s genome mapped can provide an individual with some foreknowledge of health risks to which they might be vulnerable (always keeping in mind environmental factors linked to inherent genetic risks, also keeping in mind the uncertainty and probabilities associated with the vast majority of health risks identified in this way). The risks of medical harm related to genetic ignorance can be reduced. A family of genes referred to as P450 determine whether we are normal, fast, or slow metabolizers of drugs. If we are fast metabolizers, a normal dose will be metabolized too quickly with diminished effectiveness. If we are slow metabolizers, a normal dose will accumulate to potentially life-threatening levels in some cases. Roughly 7% of 1200 FDA approved medications are affected by actionable germline inherited pharmacogenes. Even more importantly, 18% of outpatient U.S. prescriptions (more than four billion per year) are affected by actionable germline pharmacogenomics.

Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) can assist future possible parents to determine the best reproductive option if they know they represent specific genetic risks to future possible children, e.g., if each were a carrier for a mutated cystic fibrosis gene. In addition, WGS can be used to make accurate diagnoses of very rare disorders that would otherwise require harmful, invasive, diagnostic odysseys. This will be very important in the context of infants in the NICU or children in the PICU.

A technician who has long dark hair and is wearing safety glasses, a white coat, and purple gloves, loads DNA samples into a desktop genomic sequencing machine
Image description:  A technician loads DNA samples into a desktop genomic sequencing machine at the Cancer Genomics Research Laboratory, part of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG). Image source: Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute/Unsplash.

I remind students that unlike normal medical tests that only yield information about the person who has the test, genetic tests tell us about genetic features of a range of close relatives. Hence, if a genetic test identifies a serious health vulnerability in me, that information can be used to alert other family members of that same vulnerability of which they might otherwise have been ignorant (and which might well be medically manageable before clinical symptoms emerge that might then suggest an irreversible disease process). The therapeutic potential of WGS is most evident today in the case of metastatic cancer. WGS can provide base-pair resolution of an entire tumor genome in a single run, thereby revealing the unique mutations and genomic alterations in the cancer tissue. This will often allow the identification of a targeted cancer therapy, such as imatinib, that targets the distinctive genetic features of a cancer, such as chronic myelogenous leukemia.

In the reproductive context WGS can be used as a non-invasive prenatal screening tool to offer a comprehensive assessment of the fetus. Likewise, WGS could be used at birth as a screening tool to offer a more comprehensive assessment of the infant than the current gene panel, which is only looking for fifty-six rare genetic disorders. This increases the opportunities for timely therapeutic interventions, when available.

Given all these potential therapeutic benefits, what would be the potential ethical challenges? Cost is an issue that raises health care justice problems. Though the sequencing itself costs less than $1000, the analysis, interpretation and counseling bring the cost to $3000 (though in the case of cancer treatment the cost will be $10,000). Few health insurers cover these costs. Should access to WGS then be publicly funded, as a matter of health care justice, perhaps as part of a basic benefit package guaranteed to all? If all 330 million Americans wanted WGS, the cost would be $990 billion. Would that be either a wise or just use of limited health care resources, given all sorts of other unmet health care needs in our society?

One of the main rationales for doing WGS is preventive, i.e., to identify significant health vulnerabilities whose risk of actualization can be reduced by behavioral change. However, the critical question is whether we can be very confident that most patients would commit to the required behavioral changes. Available medical evidence suggests pessimism in this regard, which would imply that WGS with this expectation represented a poor use of social resources. No one believes McDonald’s business plans are threatened by WGS.

If WGS is used to replace current neonatal screening practices, are the privacy rights of newborns put at risk, given later in life genetic vulnerabilities that would be revealed? Would these concerns be mitigated if only medically actionable information were revealed to parents, all other information being set aside until that child reached adulthood? However, what exactly is the scope of “medical actionability?” That child might be vulnerable to some serious genetic disorders much later in life. This would not be a concern for the child as a child. But that child might have older relatives for whom this information would have considerable potential relevance. What are the ethical issues associated with either revealing or failing to reveal that information to potentially “at-risk” relatives?

A very important feature of genetic information gleaned from neonatal WGS (and all WGS for that matter) is that the vast majority of that information will be either of unknown or highly uncertain significance. This will be especially true because of the thousands of mutations that would be part of anyone’s DNA. For parents of a newborn, such uncertainty could be distressing for years and years. However, there is also the uncertainty associated with the responsibilities of primary care physicians in this regard. Who is supposed to have responsibility for tracking changes in genetic knowledge regarding those genetic variations in an individual as medical research advances? And who would be responsible for conveying this new information to parents or adult children, and judging what should be told and when? This is a very complex medical information management problem, relative to which current physician complaints regarding the electronic medical record would fade into insignificance.

Let us assume that WGS is going to be done more thoughtfully and more parsimoniously, such as a diagnostic or therapeutic context where such information would be most useful. What will still happen is the discovery of all sorts of incidental genetic information, sometimes with frightening potential consequences. Imagine this bit of medical dialogue: “Mr. Smith, we were looking for the genetic roots of your heart disease (which we found), but we also discovered your genetic vulnerability to an early-onset form of dementia.” Many patients would not want to know this. How is a physician supposed to know what a patient does or does not want to know in this regard?

Finally, WGS could generate new problems of health care justice. Imagine that the incidental finding in the prior paragraph was a 10% lifetime risk of some serious but treatable cancer. I personally would not be especially distressed by such a finding. However, other individuals might be especially anxious and demand all manner of expensive diagnostic tests on a semi-annual basis to rule out any indications of disease initiation. Would that individual have a just claim to such resources at social expense?

To return to the title of this essay, perhaps the fact that WGS is quick, easy to do, and relatively inexpensive is insufficient reason to justify the promiscuous promulgation at social expense of this technology. Perhaps more thoughtful social and professional deliberation regarding the issues identified in this essay would yield less ethically fraught uses of WGS. Then again there could be the 2030 version of the electronic medical record with room for terabytes of genetic information and thousands of new tabs and subtabs!

Leonard Fleck photo

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, May 6, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Fleck: Religious Coercion of Physicians: Whose Conscience Is It Anyway? Health Care and Social Justice: Just Take Two Aspirin for Your Tumor If You Cannot Afford Your Cancer Care; Medicare For All: This Is Going to HurtGreed Is God: The Divine Right to Avaricious Drug PricingGene Editing: God’s Will or God’s Won’t

Click through to view references

Dr. Fleck presents on public funding for whole genome sequencing at International Bioethics Retreat

Leonard Fleck photo

Dr. Leonard Fleck, professor in the Center for Ethics, participated in a keynote debate this month as part of the 24th annual International Bioethics Retreat that was presented virtually from Paris. Each year, “experts in medicine, philosophy, law, and health policy are invited from around the world to present their current research projects.”

Within the debate format, Dr. Fleck addressed the question: “Whole Genome Sequencing: Should It Be Publicly Funded?” Dr. Fleck defended the affirmative in this debate, while Dr. Leslie Francis of the University of Utah defended the negative. Continue reading below for Dr. Fleck’s summary of the debate.

Whole Genome Sequencing: Should It Be Publicly Funded?

Below are the key elements in the affirmative side of that debate, as well as acknowledgment of legitimate points made by Dr. Francis.

We can start with the question of what Whole Genome Sequencing [WGS] is. It refers to creating a complete map of all three billion base pairs of DNA in an individual. Next, how might WGS be used? It can be used for preventive, diagnostic, therapeutic, reproductive, and public health purposes? It can be used by adults as part of a preventive strategy, i.e., identifying genetic vulnerabilities to disorders that might be managed or prevented through behavioral change. WGS can be used diagnostically to correctly identify very rare disorders that otherwise will require a costly and painful diagnostic odyssey. This is most often true in the case of infants.

WGS is used therapeutically in the case of metastatic cancer. Both the patient and cancer tumors would be mapped in order to find a genetic driver of the cancer that could then be attacked with a targeted cancer therapy, such as trastuzumab to attack a HER2+ breast cancer. WGS can be used in a reproductive context to do non-invasive prenatal assessment of a fetus. Likewise, some advocate using WGS to do neonatal genetic screening in place of the heel stick and blood draw that will test for 56 childhood genetic disorders. WGS could test for hundreds of very rare genetic disorders that can affect children. The public health context is very visible right now as we do WGS of the COVID variants now emerging.

Why public funding? The key argument is that it is a matter of health care justice. WGS costs about $1000 for the sequencing itself, and another $2000 for the analysis, interpretation, and counseling. Insurers will generally not pay for WGS. Roughly, only the top quintile in the U.S. economic spectrum can afford to pay for WGS out of pocket. This can yield significant health advantages for them, most especially avoiding various sorts of genetic harms. More precisely, the relatively wealthy might learn of one or more health risks through WGS that would suggest the need for additional testing and therapeutic interventions, all of which would be paid for by their insurance. The less financially well off may have good health insurance but be unaware of the need to use it in a timely way without the advantage of WGS. One possible result is that a curable disease becomes incurable when symptoms are clinically evident. This is an injustice that can be avoided if access to WGS is publicly funded.

My esteemed debate partner Dr. Francis emphasized that the ethics issues are much more complex than simply matters of health care justice. The distinctive feature of any form of genetic testing is that it yields considerable information about any number of first-degree relatives who may or may not want an individual to know that information. If we do WGS on a neonate, for example, we might discover that neonate has an APOE 4/4 variant for early dementia. That means at least one parent has that vulnerability, which they might not wish to know. In addition, do those parents have any obligation to notify any other relatives of their potential vulnerability? What if, instead, it was a BRCA1 mutation for breast or ovarian cancer? More problematic still, what if WGS is used at public expense in prenatal screening with the result that some parents choose to have an abortion. Would advocates for a Right to Life view have a right to object to their tax dollars being used to facilitate access to a procedure to which they conscientiously object? This is why we have debates.