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Q/A: HHS Secretary: Genomics is Preventive Medicine


Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson waded into genomics back when he was governor of Wisconsin and his state became the first to pass a law preventing discrimination based on genetic testing. He’s now working with President Bush on similar national legislation. He also launched a $317 million biotechnology initiative in Wisconsin, which included building a genomics center. Thompson recently agreed to an interview with GT’s Meredith Salisbury.

We’re familiar with genomics research at NIH and NCI. Where else at HHS is genomics-related work being done?

THOMPSON: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has focused on the genomes of infectious microorganisms to understand their biology and to find diagnostic markers that can be used to protect the public. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are addressing issues associated with the regulation of genetic testing, and the Health Resources and Services Administration has many programs supporting the mainstreaming of genetics into medicine.


What are your views on public money for projects that might be comparable to what’s underway in the private sector?

THOMPSON: I have been a long-time promoter of biotechnology companies and believe that they play a vital role in the development of important new treatments for devastating diseases. It is clear that private biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies play an essential — and complementary — role in the way this nation takes basic biological discoveries and converts the knowledge into products that benefit the public.

However, the public sector makes a critical contribution to the knowledge base on which public, private, and academic biomedical researchers create future therapeutics. These investments have been made in the interest of the public health and not in the interest of making a profit. No venture capitalist has deep enough pockets to make the investments in basic research that are made by the federal government.


Bill Clinton is remembered for his shattering announcement with Tony Blair that sent genomic stocks plummeting. How are you advising President Bush to avoid a similar event?

THOMPSON: The American system for conducting basic biomedical research, and then turning those results into products that benefit the public, consists of a partnership between two essential components: the public sector, including NIH, and the private sector, including the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

I will advise the President to continue to rely on this remarkable partnership between the public and private sectors that has served the nation so well and to strongly support the investments in basic biological research at NIH.


What are the key issues you watch in the genomics field? What strikes you as most promising?

THOMPSON: While genetic information and genetic technology hold great promise for improving human health, they also can be used in ways that are fundamentally unjust. Genetic information can be used as the basis for insidious discrimination. Establishing principles of fair use of this information is important for all of us. The misuse of genetic information has the potential to be a very serious problem, both in terms of people’s access to employment and health insurance and the continued ability to undertake important genetic research.

Genomics offers the opportunity for a more powerful and economical form of preventive medicine, allowing each of us to establish an effective program of diet, life style, and medical surveillance to diminish our risk of future illness.

Studies of the human genome are also leading to significant insight about differences in responsiveness to drug therapy. This new science of pharmacogenomics promises to allow a better determination of which drugs to give to which individual, increasing efficacy and reducing side effects.


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