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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2000

Alexandre Mauron, University of Geneva Medical School, Switzerland

Biography

Alex Mauron is Associate Professor of Bioethics at the University of Geneva Medical School, where he teaches ethics to medical students. He holds a PhD (Lausanne, 1978) in molecular biology, with research experience in molecular genetics and neurobiology.

Current scholarly interests (since moving to the field of bioethics in 1988) include ethical issues in human genetics (gene therapy, diagnostics, social implications of genetic data), standing of the human embryo, biological concepts in ethics, teaching bioethics, and clinical ethics (futility, end-of-life issues).

He is a member of the Central Ethics Commission of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences, the Federal Ethics Commission on genetic engineering and several other ethics committees. He has published widely on the ethical issues of genetics and reproduction, as well as on clinical ethics and participated in the formulation of ethical guidelines and/or other policy documents on several bioethical issues. In addition, he is a regular columnist on bioethics in the French-language Swiss daily Le Temps.

Genetics offers the promise of contributing to better medical treatments by improving drug efficacy and safety. The individual response to a drug is affected by genetic variation altering the mechanisms of drug absorption, distribution and metabolism, as well as the functioning of the target receptors or enzymes. Genetic approaches will also improve disease classification by defining the underlying cause of disease. In the short term it may be possible to identify subgroups of patients who will benefit from a drug as well as those most likely to suffer an adverse reaction. In the long term, genetics may be used to identify new targets for therapeutic intervention.

To gain these benefits, it will be necessary to collect medical data on large cohorts of individuals and to seek correlations with genetic variation within the same cohort. The data set generated at the population level could have implications at the level of the individual for life insurance, medical insurance, criminal tracking (e.g. rape cases) and employment practises. As a society, we need to judge the risk benefit ratio of applying these new approaches. The issues are not new but the scale of the opportunity and the potential risks are now much greater.