QS | Public Health Symposium: Jason Bobe on Participant Centered Research

As part of the Quantified Self Public Health Symposium, we invited a variety of individuals from the research and academic community. These included visionaries and new investigators in public health, human-computer interaction, and medicine. One of these was Jason Bobe, the Executive Director of the Personal Genome Project. When we think of the intersection of self-tracking and health, it’s harder to find something more definitive and personal than one’s own genetic code. The Personal Genome Project has operated since 2005 as a large scale research project that “bring together genomic, environmental and human trait data.”

We asked Jason to talk about his experience leading a remarkably different research agenda than what is commonly observed in health and medical research. From the outset, the design of the Personal Genome Project was intended to fully involve and respect the autonomy, skills, and knowledge of their participants. This is manifested most clearly one of their defining characteristics, that each participant receives a full copy of their genomic data upon participation. It may be surprising to learn that this is an anomaly in most, if not all, health research. As Jason noted at the symposium, we live in an investigator-centered research environment where participants are called on to give up their data for the greater good. In Jason’s talk below, these truths are exposed, as well as a few example and insights related to how the research community can move towards a more participant-centered design as they begin to address large amounts of personal self-tracking data being gathered around the world.

I found myself returning to this talk recently when the NIH released a new Genomic Data Sharing Policy that will be applied to all NIH-funded research proposals that generate genomic data. I spent the day attempting to read through some of the policy documents and was struck by the lack of mention of participant access to research data. After digging a bit I found the only mention was in the “NIH Points to Consider for IRBs and Institutions“:

[...] the return of individual research results to participants from secondary GWAS is expected to be a rare occurrence. Nevertheless, as in all research, the return of individual research results to participants must be carefully considered because the information can have a psychological impact (e.g., stress and anxiety) and implications for the participant’s health and well-being.

It will not be surprise to learn that the Personal Genome Project submitted public comments during the the comment period. Among these comments was a recommendation to require “researchers to give these participants access to their personal data that is shared with other researchers.” Unfortunately, this recommendation appears not to have been implemented. As Jason mentioned, we still have a long way to go.

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