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Ethical and Legal Aspects of Total Genome Sequencing

Press Release No. 50/2011
24 February 2011
Green light for fourth research project at Heidelberg University’s Marsilius Kolleg

The ethical and legal aspects of total sequencing of the human genome will be the focus of the latest interdisciplinary project to be undertaken at Heidelberg University’s Marsilius Kolleg. The project will receive funding in the amount of 600,000 euros. Alongside researchers from the university itself, project participants include scientists and scholars from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. The project will run for three years, beginning in March 2011.

Experts tell us that in the foreseeable future the deciphering of complete genomes of individuals – known as total sequencing – will be customary procedure in diagnostics. The associated prospects of “individualised medicine” have generated high hopes that it will soon be feasible to attune diagnosis, therapy and prevention more accurately to patients’ individual physical characteristics. But these new genetic potentialities have also triggered controversies about their ethical and legal implications. These are the aspects that the Marsilius Kolleg project team will address.

“We will be examining three major topics,” says Heidelberg theologian and ethicist Prof. Dr. Klaus Tanner, Fellow of the Marsilius Kolleg. “What influence will the insights revealed by total sequencing have on the interaction between doctor and patient? To what extent will we need to strike a new balance between protecting a patient’s personal dignity and autonomy on the one hand, and research potentialities on the other? And which services can and should be shouldered by the social security system?”

Prof. Dr. Claus Bartram, human geneticist and dean of Heidelberg University’s Faculty of Medicine, has this to say about the objectives of the project: “First we will prepare a considered opinion on the potentialities and limitations of total sequencing of the human genome to support political discussion at the national and international level. In addition, we want to help ensure that public discussion of the topic is as well-informed as possible.” At the same time, the scientists and scholars involved intend to establish an international platform for interdisciplinary discussion of normative issues connected with medicine and the sciences. Other members of the research group are Prof. Dr. Roland Eils (bioinformatics), former Constitutional Court judge Prof. Dr. Paul Kirchhof (law), Dr. Jan Korbel (bioinformatics and human genetics), Prof. Dr. Andreas Kulozik (oncology), Prof. Dr. Peter Lichter (human genetics), Prof. Dr. Peter Schirmacher (pathology), Privatdozent Dr. Stefan Wiemann (molecular biology) and Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Wolfrum (law).

“Ethical and Legal Aspects of the Total Sequencing of the Human Genome” is the fourth research project undertaken by the Marsilius Kolleg. As a centre for advanced studies, the Marsilius Kolleg is a cornerstone of Heidelberg University’s Institutional Strategy to Promote Top-Level Research in the framework of the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal Government and the state governments. Its work is geared to bringing together handpicked researchers from different academic cultures, thereby promoting a research-based dialogue between the humanities, the social sciences, legal studies and the natural and life sciences.

For more information, go to

Prof. Dr. Klaus Tanner
Department of Scientific Theology
phone: +49 6221 543292

Tobias Just
Marsilius Kolleg
phone: +49 6221 543980

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