In collaboration with research deans from each of UNC’s schools and three divisions within the College of Arts & Sciences, as well as directors of UNC’s centers and institutes, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research has identified six strategic research priorities for the university.
Solving major challenges requires the partnership of multidisciplinary experts, trainees, students, and staff working as cohesive teams, aided by supportive frameworks and infrastructure. This support is made possible by collaboration around our strategic priorities.
One of these priorities is Precision Health and Society. Precision health is the customization of health care tailored to individuals. It considers population characteristics and individual differences such as genetic, social, environmental, and lifestyle factors to provide more specific prevention tactics, treatment options, and clinical care to improve health outcomes. This effort involves expertise from every unit on the UNC campus. In addition, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center has created the North Carolina Precision Health Collaborative, which involves universities, industry, insurance entities, nonprofits, and state government to develop North Carolina’s full potential in the precision health sector.
A parallel effort on the national level is the NIH’s All of Us Research Program, which will gather data from 1 million or more people to accelerate research in precision health. The program is just one of many national genomics efforts that are taking off around the world with the goal of providing insights into the understanding of the human genome.
The potential and promise of this work is tremendous, but there are significant complications. A timely issue of the journal Cell addresses the complex topics of the human genome and precision health, with several articles and opinion pieces about the societal challenges brought by individual genomic information.
The trials facing the researchers today include: understanding what’s really in a genome, the importance of genomic diversity, the need for computational and data science to go from data to practical insights, the ethical, legal, and social implications of knowing individual genomic information, and how to enable physicians to use this information for patient care.
And what about the limitations of privacy surrounding the participation by the public? Individuals now have the chance to participate both as subjects and stakeholders. But we have seen examples of the loss of privacy for individuals using commercial ancestry registries — even including identifying related individuals as possible suspects in criminal acts. Do public registries mean the loss of genetic privacy?
Our research partners from across campus chose Precision Health and Society as one of our strategic priorities because we have the expertise not only to explore and capitalize on the unique benefits of precision health study, but also to address the societal and environmental questions resulting from the data we gather. The age of empowering and involving individuals with the use of their own genetic information is here, and we are well-equipped to answer the challenges inherent in this field.