Genetic risk information: lines and stage directions

April 23, 2019

Pär SegerdahlOutside of their practical contexts, simple messages quickly lose their meaning. Recall what it is like to find an old Post-it Note: “Don’t forget the disk!” – What disk? The risk is great that we invent a context. Incomprehensible messages awaken our imagination.

Similarly, messages about genetic risk need practical contexts that make the information meaningful and prevent nightmarish imaginations. The information needs to become part of a larger drama. Otherwise, we begin to fantasize: “Greatly increased risk of breast cancer.” – What do they mean, “greatly increased”? What do they mean, “breast cancer”? What do they mean, “risk”?

The difficulty of understanding and benefitting from genetic risk information is probably partly due to lack of context. The potential for generating risk information is growing rapidly. All this information is waiting for its dramas: contexts where people can ask concrete questions and get practical advice. Educational methods for explaining percentages cannot replace the loss of context. People who get genetic risk information need to know more about the disease they are at risk of developing. They may want to know if they should notify the employer of the risk. They may want to know if something can be done to reduce the risk. They may want to know what it is like to live with the disease, or with the risk of getting it. How is the family affected? Can you work having the disease? Should one worry or is it reasonable to hope that one will not get the disease? And so on.

In short, well-functioning genetic risk information has two dimensions. First, an individual dimension: “You have a greatly increased risk of…” Secondly, a general dimension: Practical instructions on a wide variety of issues that people need to know more about, and about which they otherwise begin to fantasize.

To speak the language of the theater: The individual dimension (the simple risk message) is the lines. The general dimension is the stage directions. Genetic risk information consists of both lines and stage directions.

When we discuss whether genetic risk information empowers people to influence their future health or just worries them, when we discuss the difficulty of understanding risk information, we should be clearly aware of these two dimensions of the information. Are we discussing the lines or the stage directions? Or are we discussing the lines together with the stage directions?

Which dimension of genetic risk information is most relevant to the individual? Perhaps the lines are merely a reason for moving on to the stage directions. The dramatic risk lines may speak mainly to the healthcare staff, while the individual above all needs the stage directions.

One could not work at a theater without distinguishing between lines and stage directions. Perhaps something similar applies to genetic risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

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Genetic risk entails genetic responsibility

March 5, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIntellectual optimists have seen genetic risk information as a human victory over nature. The information gives us power over our future health. What previously would have been our fate, genetics now transforms into matters of personal choice.

Reality, however, is not as rosy as in this dream of intellectual power over life. Where there is risk there is responsibility, Silke Schicktanz writes in an article on genetic risk and responsibility. This is probably how people experience genetic risk information when they face it. Genetic risk gives us new forms of responsibility, rather than liberates us from nature.

Silke Schicktanz describes how responsibility emerges in situations where genetic risk is investigated, communicated and managed. The analysis exceeds what I can reproduce in a short blog post. However, I can give the reader a sense of how genetic risk information entails a broad spectrum of responsibilities. Sometimes in the individual who receives the information. Sometimes in the professional who provides the information. Sometimes in the family affected by the information. The examples are versions of the cases discussed in the article:

Suppose you have become strangely forgetful. You do a genetic test to determine if you have a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. You have the gene! The test result immediately makes you responsible for yourself. What can you do to delay or alleviate the disease? What practical measures can be taken at home to help you live with the disease? You can also feel responsibility for your family. Have you transferred the gene to your children and grandchildren? Should you urge them to test themselves? What can they do to protect themselves? The professional who administered the test also becomes responsible. Should she tell you that the validity of the test is low? Maybe you should not have been burdened with such a worrying test result, when the validity so low?

Suppose you have rectum-colon cancer. The surgeon offers you to participate in a research study in which a genetic test of the tumor cells will allow individualized treatment. Here, the surgeon becomes responsible for explaining research in personalized medicine, which is not easy. There is also the responsibility of not presenting your participation in the study as an optimization of your treatment. You yourself may feel a responsibility to participate in research, as patients have done in the past. They contributed to the care you receive today. Now you can contribute to the use genetic information in future cancer care. Moreover, the surgeon may have a responsibility to counteract a possible misunderstanding of the genetic test. You can easily believe that the test says something about disease genes that you may have passed on, and that the information should be relevant to your children. However, the test concerns mutations in the cancer cells. The test provides information only about the tumor.

Suppose you have an unusual neurological disorder. A geneticist informs you that you have a gene sequence that may be the cause of the disease. Here we can easily imagine that you feel responsibility for your family and children. Your 14-year-old son has started to show symptoms, but your 16-year-old daughter is healthy. Should she do a genetic test? You discuss the matter with your ex-partner. You explain how you found the genetic information helpful: you worry less, you have started going on regular check-ups and you have taken preventive measures. Together, you decide to tell your daughter about your test results, so that she can decide for herself if she wants to test herself.

These three examples are sufficient to illustrate how genetic risk entails genetic responsibility. How wonderful it would have been if the information simply allowed us to triumph over nature, without this burdensome genetic responsibility! A pessimist could object that the responsibility becomes overpowering instead of empowering. We must surrender to the course of nature; we cannot control everything but must accept our fate.

Neither optimists nor pessimists tend to be realistic. The article by Silke Schicktanz can help us look more realistically at the responsibilities entailed by genetic risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

Schicktanz, S. 2018. Genetic risk and responsibility: reflections on a complex relationship. Journal of Risk Research 21(2): 236-258

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Thesis on reproductive ethics

February 25, 2019

Pär SegerdahlOn Thursday, February 28, Amal Matar defends her thesis in the field of reproductive ethics.

As genetic tests become cheaper and more reliable, the potential use of genetic tests also expands. One use could be offering preconception genetic screening to entire populations. Prospective parents could find out if they are carriers of the same recessive autosomal genetic condition, and could plan future pregnancies. Carriers of such genetic conditions can be healthy, but if both parents have the same predisposition, the risk is 25 percent that their child will have the disease.

Preconception genetic screening is not implemented in Sweden. Would it be possible to do so in the future? What would the ethical and social implications be? Is it likely that preconception genetic screening will be implemented in Sweden? These are some of the questions that Amal Matar examines in her thesis.

Amal Matar’s interviews with Swedish healthcare professionals and policymaking experts indicate that preconception genetic screening will not be implemented in Sweden. The interviewees expressed the opinion that such screening would not satisfy any medical need, would threaten important values ​​in Swedish society and in the healthcare system, and require excessive resources.

Amal Matar defends her thesis in the Uppsala University Main Building (Biskopsgatan 3), room IV, on Thursday, February 28 at 13:00. You find an earlier interview with Amal Matar here. If you want to read the thesis, you find a link below.

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, Amal. 2019. Considering a Baby? Responsible Screening for the Future. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

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Why do we pay for genetic information that we do not use?

February 5, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAbout half a million people around the world have purchased direct-to-consumer genetic tests. A large majority say that they are willing to pay for the genetic information, even if the results do not reveal anything of clinical value. If so, why do they want to buy genetic information about themselves?

Many say they want health-relevant information. One can guess that they want information that helps them to live healthier: How should a person with my genes eat and exercise? However, the test results do not seem to motivate any changed behavior. Thus, people pay for genetic information, but they do not use it.

Alessandra Gorini and Gabriella Pravettoni reflect on the psychology behind consumers’ seemingly strange behavior. What makes so many buy genetic information that they will not use? In addition to the difficulty of understanding statistical information, they suggest that consumers may want to signal to themselves that everything is fine. People are generally optimists when it comes to risk. Most people think that they themselves are at less risk than others are to suffer from disease or other adverse events. Most also have a tendency to interpret information as confirming what they already believe.

What consumers of genetic tests pay for, then, is a positive signal to themselves. When they read the test results, optimistic and self-confirming cognitive processes are immediately activated: Look, I’m safe!

Gorini and Pravettoni argue that this self-signaling consumption of genetic information is problematic. The information is not used effectively. What can we do about it?

Rather than regulating the market of direct-to-consumer genetic tests, the authors propose that we should increase consumers’ knowledge and awareness, to help them use genetic information more effectively. However, if consumers are satisfied with the positive signal they sought and bought, are they motivated to acquire knowledge that can interfere with the signal?

Pär Segerdahl

Alessandra Gorini and Gabriella Pravettoni. 2016. Why do we pay for information that we won’t use? A cognitive-based explanation for genetic information seeking. European Journal of Human Genetics 24: 625. doi:10.1038/ejhg.2015.188

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Swedish policymakers on genetic screening before pregnancy

October 17, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSome genetic diseases do not develop in  the child unless both parents happen to have the same gene. Parents can be healthy and unaware that they have the same non-dominant disease gene. In these cases, the risk that their child develops the disease is 25 percent.

Preconception expanded carrier screening could be offered to entire populations, to make everyone who so wishes more informed about their genetic vulnerabilities and better equipped to plan their partner choice and pregnancies. In Sweden, this is not relevant, but the issue could be considered in the future.

In a new article in the Journal of Community Genetics, Amal Matar (PhD student at CRB) reports an interview study with Swedish policymakers: experts at the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics, at the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services, and at the National Board of Health and Welfare. Amal Matar wanted to investigate how these influential experts perceive ethical and social aspects of preconception expanded carrier screening, as a new health technology.

It is exciting to get insight into how Swedish policymakers reason about offering genetic screening before pregnancy. They consider alternative financing, prioritization and costs for healthcare. They discuss Sweden as part of the EU. They reflect on what services the healthcare system needs to offer people, depending on what the test results reveal about them. They talk about the need for more research and public engagement, as well as about long-term societal effects.

Questions about responsibility, both parental and societal, struck me as extra interesting. If friends and relatives test themselves, it may seem irresponsible not to do so. Couples can then feel a social pressure to undergo the test, which makes their voluntariness illusory. The experts also saw problems in actively going out looking for disorders in people who are not sick. Society has a responsibility to help people when they are ill, but looking for disease risks in people without symptoms changes the whole evaluation of the risks and benefits of a health technology.

Amal Matar’s conclusion is that Swedish policymakers believe that preconception expanded carrier screening currently is not appropriate in the Swedish healthcare system. The reason commonly used in favor of screening, that it supports well-informed reproductive decision-making, was considered insufficient by the experts if the screening is financed through taxes. They also saw long-term threats to important values ​​in Swedish healthcare.

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, A., Hansson, M.G. and Höglund, A.T. “A perfect society” – Swedish policymakers’ ethical and social views on preconception expanded carrier screening. Journal of Community Genetics, published online 26 September 2018, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12687-018-0389-x

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Genetic risk: Should researchers let people know?

September 24, 2018

Should researchers inform research participants if they happen to discover individual genetic risks of disease? Yes, many would say, if the information is helpful to the participants. However, the value of complex genetic risk information for individuals is uncertain. Jennifer Viberg Johansson suggests that this uncertainty needs to be acknowledged by both geneticists and ethicists.

One reason people want to participate in large genetic studies is the comprehensive health checks researchers often offer to collect data. In the future, people could also be offered information about genetic risks. According to Jennifer Viberg Johansson, there are some factors researchers should consider before offering these kinds of results.

Providing genetic risk information may not be as helpful to individuals as one may think. Knowing your genetic make-up is not the same as knowing your own probability for disease. In addition, the genetic risk information from research is not based on symptoms or personal concerns, as it would be in the healthcare system. It is thus less “personalised” and not connected to any symptoms.

Genetic risk information is complex and can be difficult to understand. To the research participants interviewed by Jennifer Viberg Johansson, risk information is something that offers them an explanation of who they are, where they are from, and where they may be heading. To them, learning about their genetic risk is an opportunity to plan their lives and take precautions to prevent disease.

Whether research participants want genetic risk information or not is more complex. Research participants themselves may change their answer depending on the way the question is asked. Risk research shows that we interpret probabilities differently, depending on the outcome and consequences. Jennifer Viberg Johansson’s work points in the same direction: probability is not an essential component of people’s decision-making when there are ways to prevent disease.

People have difficulties making sense of genetic risk when it is presented in the traditional numeric sense. It is hard to interpret what it means to have a 10 per cent or 50 per cent risk of disease. Instead, we interpret genetic risk as a binary concept: you either have risk, or you don’t. Based on her results, Jennifer Viberg Johansson suggests we keep this in mind for genetic counselling. We need to tailor counselling to people’s often binary perceptions of risk.

Communicating risk is difficult, and requires genetic counsellors to understand how different people understand the same figures in different ways.

Jennifer Viberg Johansson defended her dissertation September 21, 2018.

Anna Holm

Viberg Johansson J., (2018), INDIVIDUAL GENETIC RESEARCH RESULTS – Uncertainties, Conceptions, and Preferences, Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

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Ethics, human rights and responsible innovation

October 31, 2017

josepine-fernow2It is difficult to predict the consequences of developing and using new technologies. We interact with smart devices and intelligent software on an almost daily basis. Some of us use prosthetics and implants to go about our business and most of us will likely live to see self-driving cars. In the meantime, Swedish research shows that petting robot cats looks promising in the care of patients with dementia. Genetic tests are cheaper than ever, and available to both patients and consumers. If you spit in a tube and mail it to a US company, they will tell you where your ancestors are from. Who knows? You could be part sub Saharan African, and part Scandinavian at the same time, and (likely) still be you.

Technologies, new and old, have both ethical and human rights impact. Today, we are closer to scenarios we only pictured in science fiction a few decades ago. Technology develops fast and it is difficult to predict what is on the horizon. The legislation, regulation and ethical guidance we have today was developed for a different future. Policy makers struggle to assess the ethical, legal and human rights impact of new and emerging technologies. These frameworks are challenged when a country like Saudi Arabia, criticized for not giving equal rights to women, offers a robot honorary citizenship. This autumn marks the start of a research initiative that will look at some of these questions. A group of researchers from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas join forces to help improve the ethical and legal frameworks we have today.

The SIENNA project (short for Stakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact) will deliver proposals for professional ethics codes, guidelines for research ethics committees and better regulation in three areas: human genetics and genomics, human enhancement, and artificial intelligence & robotics. The proposals will build on input from stakeholders, experts and citizens. SIENNA will also look at some of the more philosophical questions these technologies raise: Where do we draw the line between health and illness, normality and abnormality? Can we expect intelligent software to be moral? Do we accept giving up some of our privacy to screen our genome for genetic disorders? And if giving up some of our personal liberty is the price we have to pay to interact with machines, are we willing to pay it?

 The project is co-ordinated by the University of Twente. Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics contributes expertise on the ethical, legal and social issues of genetics and genomics, and experience of communicating European research. Visit the SIENNA website at www.sienna-project.eu to find out more about the project and our partners!

Josepine Fernow

The SIENNA projectStakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact – has received just under € 4 million for a 3,5 year project under the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 741716.

Disclaimer: This text and its contents reflects only SIENNA’s view. The Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

SIENNA project

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