Public Release: 

Stanford researcher to discuss public confidence in genetic technology

Stanford University Medical Center

STANFORD, Calif. - If you buy the hype, genetics will soon transform medicine from a hit-and-miss ordeal to a realm where patients get exactly the treatment that's appropriate for their own genetic background. But these breakthroughs have been slow to arrive and fraught with ethical dilemmas.

How genetics can be safely translated into reliable and affordable medical applications will be discussed by Barbara Koenig, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, during a panel discussion Feb. 18 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C. This panel is part of a daylong session on, "The Genetic Age: Science funding, organization, regulation and application to human health."

The panel, including three bioethicists, will address a series of open-ended questions exploring issues of balancing speed and safety in implementing genetic technologies and ensuring public confidence in genetic advances.

Koenig, a faculty member at the Center for Biomedical Ethics who studies ethical issues involving genetic research, said that there are still questions about how to appropriately regulate new genetic technologies and ascertain their effectiveness. "There's the potential for public confidence being destroyed if these technologies aren't regulated properly," she said.

The panel will address this issue of public confidence, including differences between the United States and Europe regarding genetically modified food. Some of those differences in attitude may carry over into perceptions of genetics in health care.

Additional questions revolve around when testing for a given disease-causing mutation is appropriate. For example, genetic tests can be used to detect mutations in newborns, predicting a child's future risk of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease or even predisposition to addiction. But the ability to detect risk is ahead of doctor's ability to prevent or treat the diseases. Under these conditions, is it ethical to offer the test?

Koenig said another issue in genetic technologies has to do with when technological advances raise ethical questions. An example of this has to do with particular mutations that are more common in certain ethnic groups. Offering race- or ethnicity-specific genetic tests raises issues about the association between genetics and race, which is the subject of an ongoing debate.


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Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical center's Office of Communication & Public Affairs at

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