Elbert Branscomb on Dangers of Genomic Research
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

Yeah, sure, I think there are dangers—there are all of the well celebrated risks and hazards. These are potholes in the road of modern life that the genome project is going to put there. Or that our knowledge of all this stuff is going to put there having to do with privacy and insurance and so on and so on. And then there are the more slippery slope type issues that have to do with the genetic stigmatization of sub-groups. And if these aspects of stigmatization or of individuality to which we attach some sort of good-bad cut and inevitably we will as in the population at large will. And if these happen to correlate with what we all recognize to be “racial groups” or “racial sub-groups” or “ethnic sub-groups” or whatever name we choose to give it at that time in order to be not so politically offensive, the problems will be huge. And so there is that class of risk.

Then there is a much deeper, I think, class of hazards that have to do with predictability or even marginal predictability. For example, it will be the case that we will be able to essentially in effect, exhaustively genotype a newborn. And say, a la Maynard’s little discussion last night. Which version of each haploblock in the human genome did you inherit from mother and which from father? And then to do a pretty good progressively over the next few decades, a progressively good assertion as to what that is likely to imply about the phenotype of your child. And there will be all sorts of medical virtues to that, and then there will be the huge sand trap of how terrible it will be in many respects to know such answers, or even to have the ability to know them and the need to make the choice of whether or not you’re going to turn over the card and look at what’s written on it.

Do I really want to have my child know as soon as he is or she is of the age to comprehend this news? That we can say with the following probabilities, that you will suffer from this disease or that disease, or are likely to have—da, da, da, all these sorts of things, and I think that that’s going to be a lot more problematic than we actually now imagine.

I think in some way human life—like the insurance contract itself, health insurance which rests fundamentally on neither party being able to predict very well what’s going to happen, if this kind of information advantages either party in that game, then insurance is a dead idea. It can’t be that insurance companies can’t know, but patients can because then they can cause the insurance company to invest very inappropriately and very heavily and inure themselves from risks that they have the secret knowledge about. But more generally in life, I think we run on ignorance. If my medical prognosis could be to any degree precisely predicted later in life that would be something of great importance in lots of contexts. Importance maybe to me, importance to people who are my relatives or who are my offspring. Importance to ladies who might for other reasons of other mistakes of perception on their part be considering me as a marriage candidate. We, after all, do unconsciously make a considerable effort to, and sometimes consciously, to evaluate the genetic quality of our potential mates, right? We do not mate randomly. We’re not that crazy. Crazy enough, but not that crazy. And so I suspect it will be quite difficult to deal with the fact that we can find out a lot of stuff which will not be predictive in the sharp determinative sense; this is what’s going to happen to you. That would be tough enough. But even tougher in its own way will be all these thirty percent shifts in odds. You have a fifty percent elevated risk of early onset Alzheimer’s, nothing we can do about it. God help you.

And a human geneticist who is Greek in origin quite a few years ago, his name is Stameti Anapolis (??) who discovered a protein based assay for Beta Thalassemia. And he went off to Greece and it could be done very cheaply and quickly, and went off to Greece to bring this gift of modern molecular and biological medicine to the rural communities who suffer so greatly from this heritable disease. There it is now, I think, confidently known because it confers partial immunity to malaria or resistance to malaria. And as he has said, he barely got out of there with his life because he was warmly embraced, it was a great thing, and this was a great medical advance. And they started testing people and then the fact that they had the answer hit. Now young men and young women were stigmatized. They were no longer marriageable candidates. And the arranged marriages that held the communities together and bonded family to family were now destroyed. And the destruction was huge. And not to be gainsaid, and not to be ridiculed. This is just—life depended on an inability to predict who was carrying the trait very well. And it’s that kind of tearing away of the veil of productive ignorance that I think in a myriad of ways, subtle and not so subtle who will problematic, particularly if they correlate to personality properties or mental abilities; being shy, being self confident, being happy, being depressed, being gifted in this way or that or not. So it matters how much prediction will ultimately come out of knowing, being able to haplotype, genetically haplotype an individual. But I bet that won’t be high. One biologist wrote a little essay in which he was arguing that there was a lot of genetic influence on our properties, as has been implicated in the study of genetically identical twins separated at birth without their knowledge, and then reunited later and studied, there is, in general, a stunning concordance of traits of every kind; psychological traits, personality and on and on and on, implying to the rage of all right thinking people that there is a hidden and unsuspected huge affect of unitype on these kinds of traits. We have to see how that actually comes out. But if that turns out to be at all significant, then I suspect that will be deeply problematic.

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist and became a senior biomedical scientist in 1969. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program. In 1996 Dr. Branscomb was named the Director of the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. Since November of 2000, he has held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program. In this capacity, he assists the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs. In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.