In this article, I review some of the ethical issues that have arisen in the past when genetic testing has been done in newborns. I then suggest how whole genome sequencing may raise a new set of issues. Finally, I introduce a series of other articles in which the authors address different controversies that arise when whole genome sequencing is used in the newborn period.
There is interest in applying genomic sequencing (GS) to newborns’ clinical care. Here we explore parents’ and clinicians’ attitudes toward and perceptions of the risks, benefits, and utility of newborn GS compared with newborn screening (NBS) prior to receiving study results.METHODS:
The BabySeq Project is a randomized controlled trial used to explore the impact of integrating GS into the clinical care of newborns. Parents (n = 493) of enrolled infants (n = 309) and clinicians (n = 144) completed a baseline survey at enrollment. We examined between-group differences in perceived utility and attitudes toward NBS and GS. Open-ended responses about risks and benefits of each technology were categorized by theme.RESULTS:
The majority of parents (71%) and clinicians (51%) agreed that there are health benefits of GS, although parents and clinicians agreed more that there are risks associated with GS (35%, 70%) than with NBS (19%, 39%; all P < .05). Parents perceived more benefit and less risk of GS than did clinicians. Clinicians endorsed concerns about privacy and discrimination related to genomic information more strongly than did parents, and parents anticipated benefits of GS that clinicians did not.CONCLUSIONS:
Parents and clinicians are less confident in GS than NBS, but parents perceive a more favorable risk/benefit ratio of GS than do clinicians. Clinicians should be aware that parents’ optimism may stem from their perceived benefits beyond clinical utility.
NICUs are a priority implementation area for genomic medicine. Rapid genomic testing in the NICU is expected to be genomic medicine’s "critical application," providing such clear benefits that it drives the adoption of genomics more broadly. Studies from multiple centers worldwide have now demonstrated the clinical utility and cost-effectiveness of rapid genomic sequencing in this setting, paving the way for widespread implementation. However, the introduction of this potentially powerful tool for predicting future impairment in the NICU also raises profound ethical challenges. Developing models of good practice that incorporate the identification, exploration, and analysis of ethical issues will be critical for successful implementation. In this article, we analyze 3 such issues: (1) the value and meaning of gaining consent to a complex test in a stressful, emotionally charged environment; (2) the effect of rapid diagnosis on parent-child bonding and its implications for medical and family decisions, particularly in relation to treatment limitation; and (3) distributive justice (ie, whether the substantial cost and diversion of resources to deliver rapid genomic testing in the NICU can be justified).
Genetic data have the potential to impact patient care significantly. In primary care and in the ICU, patients are undergoing genetic testing. Genetics is also transforming cancer care and undiagnosed diseases. Optimal personalized medicine relies on the understanding of disease penetrance. In this article, I examine the complexity of penetrance.METHODS:
In this article, I assess how variable penetrance can be seen with many diseases, including those of different modes of inheritance, and how genomic testing is being applied effectively for many diseases. In this article, I also identify challenges in the field, including the interpretation of gene variants.RESULTS:
Using advancing bioinformatics and detailed phenotypic assessment, we can increase the yield of genomic testing, particularly for highly penetrant conditions. The technologies are useful and applicable to different medical situations.CONCLUSIONS:
There are now effective genome diagnostics for many diseases. However, the best personalized application of these data still requires skilled interpretation.
The authors of current professional guidelines generally do not support the return of information about genetic carrier status for infants and children because of a perceived lack of immediate benefit and an abundance of caution regarding potential harm and desire to protect the children’s future autonomy. The advent of genomic sequencing, used either as a diagnostic or a screening tool, and the increasing use of this technology in childhood creates the potential for the identification of carrier status in the pediatric period. As part of the BabySeq Project, researchers are exploring the implications of genomic sequencing in both newborns who are healthy and newborns who are sick and developing policies and procedures for the return of carrier status information to the parents and physicians of newborns. In this commentary, we review the history of carrier testing in children and explore the potential benefits, risks, and challenges of returning such results both for the children, their parents, and potential future siblings.
Ethical controversies may arise when genome sequencing reveals a genetic variant that is thought to be pathogenic, but the patient has no symptoms. This could be due to variable penetrance or expressivity. It could also result from a misclassification of the gene as pathogenic. In this article, I analyze 2 possibilities when such a situation occurs. The first is straightforward. We could conclude that the sequencing results should be considered a "false-positive" test result. The second is a bit more counterintuitive. In some cases, we could consider the test result to be a true-positive but in way that has not yet led to phenotypic findings. Somewhat playfully, we imagine that, in such cases, we could consider the patient’s phenotype to be falsely negative. Sometimes, as odd as it seems, we act is if that is what we believe.
The return of information from genomic sequencing in children, especially in early life, brings up complex issues around parental autonomy, the child’s future autonomy, the best interest standard, and the best interests of the family. These issues are particularly important in considering the return of genomic results for adult-onset–only conditions in children. The BabySeq Project is a randomized trial used to explore the medical, behavioral, and economic impacts of integrating genomic sequencing into the care of newborns who are healthy or sick. We discuss a case in which a variant in a gene for an actionable, adult-onset–only condition was detected, highlighting the ethical issues surrounding the return of such finding in a newborn to the newborn’s parents.
The availability of whole genome sequencing (WGS) is increasing in clinical care, and WGS is a promising tool in diagnostic odyssey cases. Physicians’ ability to effectively communicate genomic information with patients, however, is unclear. In this multiperspective study, we assessed physicians’ communication of patient genome sequencing information in a diagnostic odyssey case series.METHODS:
We evaluated physician communication of genome sequencing results in the context of an ongoing study of the utility of WGS for the diagnosis of rare and idiopathic diseases. A modified version of the Medical Communication Competence Scale was used to compare patients’ ratings of their physicians’ communication of general medical information to communication of genome sequencing information. Physician self-ratings were also compared with patient ratings.RESULTS:
A total of 47 patients, parents, and physicians across 11 diagnostic odyssey cases participated. In 6 of 11 cases (54%), the patient respondent rated the physician’s communication of genome sequencing information as worse than that of general medical information. In 9 of 11 cases (82%), physician self-ratings of communication of genome sequencing information were worse than the patient respondent’s rating. Identification of a diagnosis via WGS was positively associated with physician self-ratings (P = .021) but was not associated with patient respondent ratings (P = .959).CONCLUSIONS:
These findings reveal that even in diagnostic odyssey cases, in which genome sequencing may be clinically beneficial, physicians may not be well-equipped to communicate genomic information to patients. Future studies may benefit from multiperspective approaches to assessing and understanding physician-patient communication of genome-sequencing information.
Using focus group methodology, we studied the attitudes of neonatologists regarding diagnostic rapid genome sequencing for newborns who were critically ill in a NICU. One focus group took place within the first year after whole-genome sequencing testing became available, and another focus group took place 3 years later. Focus groups were audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed by using standard techniques of grounded theory. Different analysts coded them for themes. The analysts then discussed differences and agreed on major themes. Twelve doctors participated in the first focus group, and 9 doctors participated in the second; 62% were attending physicians, and the rest were fellows. There were 14 women and 7 men. We did not collect any other demographic information on participants. Surprisingly, we found few differences between the earlier focus group and the later one. Comments were categorized as falling into 4 domains: (1) uncertainty about the interpretation of results, (2) issues about parental consent and limits on their right to know genomic information, (3) different opinions about whether and how genomic results could be clinically useful, and (4) potential harms of genomic testing.