Scientists are working to gather more and more details about Icelandic DNA, in an attempt to design better drugs and understand how drugs react to genetic variation. So far, the DNA of over 1% of all Icelanders has been sequenced and more will likely follow. This operation is conducted by Amgen’s DeCode Genetics. The team now claims that they can identify every woman at high-risk of breast cancer “at the touch of a button” and it would be “criminal” not to use the information.

Maps show how common certain risk-causing DNA mutations are around Iceland. Image via Technology Review.

“The next big initiative in health care in the western parts of the world is going to come through the use of genetics. You can basically trace all human diversity, the risk of disease and the response to treatment”, said Stefansson. He also said that their organization provides answers to difficult questions about the cause of disease.

When a child is born, he or she contains DNA material from both its mother and its father, so in a way and to some extent, if you look at a child, you can trace his ancestors’ DNA. In this way, the team wants to find out more about the first settlers who colonized the island. The reports, published in the journal Nature Genetics, used the data to make a suite of discoveries including the age of the last common ancestor of men. Through some smart processing, they actually have a lot of genetic information about all Icelanders.

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“By using these tricks we can predict, with substantial accuracy, the genome of the entire nation,” the chief executive of deCODE, Dr Kari Stefansson told the BBC News website.

Kári Stefánsson, the doctor who is founder and CEO of DeCode, says he is worried about mutations in a gene called BRCA2 that convey a sharply increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. With this data, they want to be able to prevent women more vulnerable to genetic affections – but she says it’s quite difficult to convince authorities of this utility.

“We could save these people from dying prematurely, but we are not, because we as a society haven’t agreed on that,” says Stefánsson. “I personally think that not saving people with these mutations is a crime. This is an enormous risk to a large number of people.”+

As time passes, this might become more and more common and genetic studies might prove instrumental to saving lives. Personally, I find that it has huge potential benefits and I don’t understand why people would be against this… but then again, maybe genetic privacy will become a thing soon. There are various ethical and legal concerns.

“The rule is that you can only use and expose genetic data if you have the permission from the individual in question,” says Gísli Pálsson, an anthropologist at the University of Iceland. “But this is beyond informed consent. People are not even in the studies, they haven’t submitted any consent or even a sample, yet the company claims to have knowledge about these people and that there is a health risk.”

What do you think about this? Is it unethical to chart out a country’s DNA, or is it simply a modern way of preventing and fighting disease?