Present and Future Bioethical Questions of Genomics and Medicine 

By Andrew Adey 

Since the first steps were taken toward understanding the underlying biology of all living things, we have dreamt of how these secrets could be used to benefit mankind. From the noble perspectives of curing disease to the unsettling ideas of eugenics, the knowledge required to bring these ideas into reality is rapidly being achieved. While the motivations behind genetic research are rooted in a core drive to benefit human life, knowledge is power, and technology has a history of being abused regardless of the original intent. Despite this, the vast potential for good cannot be ignored when the concerns and risks can be controlled by careful and deliberate bioethical guidelines. 

In 2003, the completion of the Human Genome Project was announced. This international effort sequenced all three billion bases of the genetic code that acts as a blue print present within essentially every cell of the human body, yet it came at a cost of approximately $3 billion US Dollars and in a time frame of roughly 13 years. Today a comparable feat can be accomplished for around $1,000 in as little as a few days. This plummet in cost has resulted in a new era of personalized genomic medicine and disease diagnosis on the molecular level. Cancer research in particular has benefitted greatly where the genome of a patient’s tumor can be compared to that of their normal cells to identify the exact mutation that caused the cancer, which can then be used to customize the treatment. This same idea is also being applied to a vast array of conditions, and within the decade, it is likely that patients will have their genome on file at their doctor’s office. The massive amount of information will allow a genetic counselor and physician to tailor medication or even diet recommendations based on how that individual will benefit given their unique genome. But how much information is too much? How much do we actually want to know? Particularly with respect to cases where there is nothing that can be done, such as in Huntington’s disease, where the patient’s future is inevitably tied to a debilitating disease. There is no question that handling this life changing information is a complicated topic with no clear answer that would fit everyone. 

Late last year, the ability to determine the genome of a pre-natal child by simply testing the pregnant mother’s blood was developed. This test is noninvasive, unlike risk-associated techniques such as amniocentesis, and has the ability to test for approximately 3,000 genetic disorders as opposed to a handful provided by current methods. While a popular media source commented that this technology could be used for parents to select a child with an “athletic” genetic predisposition or other superficial qualities, the actuality of that situation or one of a similar nature is extremely far-fetched, especially since such traits are highly unpredictable. However, it does bring about concerns regarding how to handle pre-natal genomics. What if the unborn child has a variant predisposing them to Alzheimer’s? On the other hand, a variant could be found that results in a condition undetectable by current methods where instead of being realized during delivery, early detection would allow for a specialist to be present in the delivery room ready to provide life-saving medical attention immediately at birth. It is even possible that new treatments may be created for genetic disorders that can be administered during the pregnancy that would otherwise result in miscarriage. 

The advances in genomics over the past decade have been astonishing. Technology that once existed only in science-fiction is now a reality. While a lot of these tools are still years away from clinical use, it is crucial that we handle the tough bioethical questions now so that we can benefit from them in a safe and conscientious way. The field of medical genomics is still in its very early stages and the progress being made on the science front is not slowing down. It is clear that this not a passing trend, but the start of something that will impact generations to come and is already reshaping medicine as we know it. Now more than ever, we need to devote attention and resources to paving the path forward. 

Andrew Adey  received his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from the  University of Texas in Austin, TX. He is currently getting his PhD. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Washington. His primary focus is in the development and application of technologies and approaches to capture long-range continuity of genomic sequence information using high-throughput sequencing. His secondary focus is the development and application of technologies and approaches to capture epigenetic information across the genome. Particularly from limited numbers of cells to allow the interrogation of the epigenomic landscape from the early stages of development as well as samples of limited quantity such as a microdissected tumor. 

A Tale of Two Artists 

By Michael Gannon 

It’s hard to take a hands-off approach to some things… 

But I felt I had to take a hands-off approach in my conversations with artists when it came to  offering ideas or examples of what they could submit. I felt it was better to let them be inspired, to let them imagine on their own, and I considered that even if I were to come up with a proposal that seemed great to me, it wouldn’t bear fruit because it had to originate from their own artistic mind and imagination and heart. But it was an urge that was hard to resist! I understood the theme, I felt passionate about the project, I was talking with any artist that would listen, and I wanted to  impulse their engagement. Plus, we were doing this for the first time and eager to see our first submission arrive. 

I remember inviting two artists to participate by creating a piece and submitting. Both were intrigued and asked me for ideas. The urge swelled inside me to give them some off the cuff examples of what I would do if I were an artist. I had to bite my tongue really hard not to give any ideas. I had to settle with pointing them to the theme and let the idea develop on its own within them. 

The first artist never submitted a piece because the concept never took on a form in her mind that she could visualize. And that is OK, this competition is not meant to  inspire every artist to participate by direct submission. 

The second artist batted around ideas for months. She knew the competition was for her. But she was busy with being a full time art teacher and working on her Masters of Fine Arts in the evenings. She finally decided on the idea but she was having trouble making time to sit down and materialize it. Nevertheless, she followed through…and ended up being chosen by the renowned panel of six international judges as one of the eleven winners. We both shared in the joy of seeing her piece “The Matrix” unveiled at the United Nations building in New York on October 3rd, 2011. 

  Artists can communicate truths in life that may remain otherwise hidden. They can stir thoughts and emotions that are capable of inspiring individuals to aspire to an ideal or a higher good that was not known of, understood or visible prior to contact with the artistic creation facing them. 
This is the beautiful challenge that artists face today: 

  • What do I communicate? 
  • What do I inspire? 
  • Can I evoke good reactions and encourage others to make acts of compassion, care and love?

Bioethics  Global Art holds that YES. The effects of your artwork may never be known to you, but we are sure that they will be positive and lasting ones. Toss your pebble into the calm waters of this Competition and watch the ripples reach far and wide. This is our challenge to you,  Artist of the Globe. 

About Michael Gannon 
The US Executive Director of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and Management from University Anahuac, Mexico City. He also graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in Religious Sciences from the Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum, in Rome, Italy. He lives in Atlanta, and works as a management and enterprise intelligence consultant. 

What is Bioethics and why should Art be associated with it? 

By Yvonne Denbina

As our world changes daily, our technology changes with it by leaps and bounds. How is the human body affected by these technological advances and what effects will our children experience as a result? Is everything beneficial? Shouldn’t we take time and energy to consider pros and cons? Our lives depend on making sure that we safely engineer the components of what we ingest, wear, use and surround ourselves with. Our lives, the lives of others and our future progeny deserve compassion, care, and love in how we implement improvements and technological advances for ourselves and others. Our sciences, laws, religions, social and cultural attitudes should weigh the consideration of ethics in our lives and of those to come. 

Art is the voice and vision of our world. You, Artist, add your vision, write your statement! Make a ripple by creating an image that will be viewed and contemplated by many! Be part of the heartbeat that makes a sound about caring.