Updated: Dec. 7, 2017 at 12:33 p.m.
A series of four seminars the University is launching this month will focus on the future of genetics in modern medicine.
The seminars, which are free and open to the public, will start Monday and continue through the rest of the academic year. The first seminar will feature at least five different speakers in the medical field who will examine the ethical, legal and social implications of genomics in medicine.
Sonia Suter, a John and Inge Stafford faculty research professor and one of the organizers of the seminars, said she worked with Shawneequa Callier, an associate professor of clinical research and leadership, and Charles Macri, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, to put together the program. Suter said the seminar sessions will involve faculty members from multiple GW schools, as well as individuals from external institutions, like the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National Institutes of Health, Howard University and Children’s National Hospital.
Suter said the next three sessions this academic year will focus on race, genomics and health disparities; reproductive medicine and genomics; and gene therapy, genetic engineering and precision medicine – health care practices that are tailored to a specific patient.
“The field of genomics and precision medicine research examines genomic, lifestyle and behavioral data to develop personalized therapies, prevention strategies and treatment plans for patients,” Suter said in an email. “While this technology holds great promise in medicine, there is ongoing debate about the societal risks and benefits of this research, many of which raise legal and societal issues.”
Suter said that to ensure equal access to the “fruits of this research,” the medical community needs to engage participants of diverse backgrounds in all levels of research, from the patient recruitment stage to the composition of the leadership team.
She added that the role of genetics and genomics in the medical field raises concerns about privacy and public trust. Suter said bringing multiple disciplines like law and medicine together through the seminars will help identify the challenge and opportunities related to precision medicine research.
“The hope is that proactive thinking and policy-making can maximize the promise and minimize the risks of genomics,” she said.
Suter added that she expects between 70 and 100 people to attend each session.
Michael Rackover, the Theodore C. Search Emeritus Professor at Thomas Jefferson University and a speaker at the first seminar, said new technology – like advanced genetic screening – will rapidly change how people practice medicine. He said training students is critical to implementing new technology in a clinical or hospital setting so that the developments are successfully used for patient care.
For areas of medicine like oncology, new technology involving genetics could be the “genesis” of new treatments and help patients live longer, have a better quality of life and find more specialized treatments for different types of cancer, he said.
“You have a new technology that’s evolving as we speak, and it’s a very difficult subject and it’s very difficult to take the information that you’re learning in school and then take it into clinical practice when a lot of health care providers are not trained in genomic education,” Rackover said.
Christine Teal, an assistant professor of surgery and the director of the Breast Care Center, said she will also speak at the first seminar Monday. Her presentation will focus on the diagnosis and staging processes of breast cancer, she said.
She added that while her presentation won’t focus directly on genetics – as other speakers will address the topic more in detail – she will touch on how genetic screening can benefit patients who have a strong family history of breast cancer.
“I think it’s always good to have different perspectives and different areas of expertise for getting different components of the talks and just to make it a more educational experience,” Teal said.
The other three speakers at the event include Elizabeth Stark and Tara Biagi, genetic counselors for the High Risk Breast Clinic at GW, and Carla Easter, the chief of the education and community involvement branch for the National Human Genome Research Institute for the National Institutes of Health. All three did not return requests for comment.
This post was updated to reflect the following clarification:
The headline and lede of this story were updated to more accurately describe that the seminars are hosted by the University. The medical school and the law school will both host sessions.