Geneticist Dismisses Discrimination Fears

Paul M. Soper

Entrepreneur J. CRAIG VENTER, (left), said genetic discrimination by insurance companies and employers is unlikely if individual genetic codes were to be made public in a discussion at the ARCO Forum Friday.

Dismissing concerns that revealing individuals’ genetic makeup could lead to discrimination, entrepreneur and scientist J. Craig Venter said Friday that since everyone has faulty copies of some genes, employers and insurance companies would not be able to discriminate if genetic records were made public.

The study of all of the genetic information in organisms, called genomics, will profoundly affect our society, Venter said in a panel discussion at the Kennedy School of Government Friday.

He said that he realizes that the goal of sequencing many people’s genomes is controversial, because it is feared that the information could be misused “by people who want to discriminate.”

“People are afraid of having their genetic code sequenced and put on the internet, like mine is,” he added.

In a controversial move, Venter had his own genome sequenced by his company, Celera Genomics, and then published an analysis of the sequence in the journal Science, even though he originally claimed the sequences were taken from anonymous donors.

Venter said that fears of discrimination by employers and insurance companies—based on inherited risk factors contained in individual genomes—are unfounded because “as soon as we sequence everyone’s code, we will all be insurable.”

He said that he hopes everyone in the country will have the opportunity to have their genome sequenced.

The panel discussion at which Venter spoke was part of a panel commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix—the structure of DNA proposed by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The sequence of the chemical bases of DNA make up the genes in an individual’s genome.

“In 1995 the genomic era started with the first sequencing of the genome of a living organism,” Venter said. “We were in a hurry. We knew genomics would drive a new revolution.”

The final draft of the human genome—containing 99 percent of gene-coding DNA—was released earlier this month.

Panelist Daniel Wikler, professor of ethics and population health at the School of Public Health, also addressed ethical issues of genomics.

“Information can be more dangerous than helpful,” said Wikler, speaking on issues of confidentiality. “We don’t know if we will react to it appropriately.”

Director of the Institute of Politics Daniel R. Glickman spoke on the difficulties of constructing public policy around genomics.

Glickman asserted that most members of Congress are “scientifically challenged,” but said that “practical, moral and legal issues have to be brought to the policy arena in a sensible way.”

“These are very complicated subjects,” he added, but “if the public is kept in the dark, it causes cynicism and frustration.”

Joshua R. Lacsina ’03 said that Venter surprised him.

“I expected someone who was going to be more profit-oriented and pro-business, but he is conscious of social issues,” he said.

Director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Program Calestous Juma of the organized the event.

“I wanted to cover issues of ethics, I wanted to address issues of how to regulate, and I wanted Venter because I wanted someone who is at the cutting age of research,” Juma said.