Ethical challenges of personalized medicine considered at Vatican workshop

Personalized Medicine represents a revolution in medical science and raises several ethical challenges, says Professor Yechiel Michael Barilan.

To discuss these challenges the Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a workshop in the Vatican this week on “The Revolution of Personalized Medicine”. The event carries a provocative subtitle: “Are we going to cure all diseases and at what price?”

Personalized medicine is a therapeutic approach that separates people into different groups according to their genetic information in order to tailor decisions, interventions, and drug therapy to the individual patient.

Professor Yechiel Michael Barilan, an expert in Internal Medicine at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, is the workshop’s Academic Director. He told Vatican News that Personalized Medicine represents a dual revolution.

It promises a partial revolution in medicine, he said, because it aims at getting “more and more specific at the molecular level of every disease”. This means examining the genomic and molecular features of diabetes, for instance.

The bigger revolution, said Prof. Barilan, is “to try to abandon the concept of disease altogether and, on one hand, just collect lots of biological data (proteins, genes), have the computers calculate them, like Google does, and then come out with specific health instructions”.

Ethical challenges

Prof. Barilan admitted that Personalized Medicine poses several ethical challenges.

One general risk is conflict of interest and bias in the industry, though, he said, every industry runs this risk.

The doctor-patient relationship could also suffer as a result of Personalized Medicine, because computers could come between the two as they are relied upon in the place of doctors to analyze patient data.

“There is also a risk of having a new definition of what health is, and it’s not necessarily what we as persons and humans believe health is,” he said.

Risk of alienation

Personalized Medicine, said Prof. Barilan, even runs the risk of alienating certain people from society, because they carry genetic traits or disease markers that could be classified as “high risk” or they might have a low response-rate to therapy.

It might even cause the “reorganization of human society along the lines of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you are as a biological creature,” he said.

Ultimate human goals

Prof. Barilan said the issues surrounding Personalized Medicine – and science in general – is related to “ultimate human goals”, or the perceived purpose of human life.

“Doing science and doing medicine without think about ultimate human goals and values is, in a way, futile or shallow, and could be extremely harmful.”

Both the Vatican and the scientists present at the workshop share a commitment to ultimate human goals, said Prof. Barilan, even if there is disagreement over what those goals may be.