Saturday Morning at AAAS – Privacy and Personal Medicine

I’m slowly working my way through posting about the AAAS conference, finally made it to the second day.  While my title would probably make for a good topic itself, this is actually two separate panels I made it to last Saturday morning.

The day started off with the panel titled “Balancing Security and Privacy”, which I’ll end up going through in the reverse order of their presentations. I think the final speaker Bruce Schneier made a good point by saying it’s a false dichotomy with plenty of security protocols that don’t involve sacrificing privacy, using the example of a lock being a lot more effective than having a guard asking for the ID of anyone trying to enter a room. Similarly he pointed out the most effective significant changes to air travel since 9/11 were locking cockpits and the change in mindset where passangers will fight back – two things that have nothing to do with the additional searches and identification we have to go through. The other main theme Schneir made was how many people have a poor sense of how much privacy they are keeping, given that our way of thinking about social interactions developed in a more limited context, and new technology has let us share info with large numbers of people very quickly.

The second speaker, Jeremy Pitt dealt more with balancing privacy and utility rather than privacy and security. He went over a variety of different technology that is being developed that can have benefits, but would also cost us the ability to give up information. He also warned about how most of this technology requires us to trust it is being used in the way we’re told. While we may be protected in some ways, it’s also in the interest of many companies to get us to reveal as much as possible.

The first speaker was Stephen Lechner who was there to provide a European perspective on privacy, and quickly made a convincing case that there is less a “European” perspective than each country having different views on what is important to think about privacy. Given the setup of the EU, even if there is an attempt to standardize rules it is up to each individual country to determine how to implement it. Lechner also had a good example of how protections of privacy may be implemented in theory but offer little actually benefit. This was a standardized form that people had to sign before getting a cell phone that was supposed to inform people of the way the company may be storing information. However this form merely referred to the relevant laws without even explaining what they were.

I went from that panel to  “Personalized Medicine: Moving Forward or Backward” which was more of a typical science talk than many of the other sessions I attended this year. It mainly focused on ways to personalize medicine other than the obvious genetic sequencing that is starting to become feasible. The first speaker was Susan Sumner from RTI International, who has been developing ways to look at persons metabolome – the small molecules that are produced in our bodies as part of our metabolism. Specifically she was looking at what markers may be associated with different states of health. One example was a study to look at how the biochemistry may differ in a two groups of obese adolescents with different ability to lose weight after attending a healthy weight camp. Another study she described was able to identify metabolites in pregnant women during the second trimester that seem correlated with a risk for premature birth.

The second speaker Karen Nelson from the J. Craig Venter Institute who dealt with similar ideas of looking for other indicators of disease states, but in this case by looking at what different microbes may be living inside our bodies. This was done with a similar approach that was previously done where the Venter Institute isolated DNA from ocean samples and used sequencing to identify what microbes where living in different environments. They found less than 1% of organisms were those that we have been able to culture but by sequencing the DNA from these samples they have found entire new classes of microbes. They have begun publishing the results of using the same technique to identify what microbes may be correlated with different health issues. For instance they have found a particular microbe that was associated in people with esophageal cancer, which may be useful to identify cancer in earlier stages. They have also seen another microbe that is missing in people with Crohn’s Disease, and could be administered as an alternative treatment to surgery.

The final talk of the morning was Willie May from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where he has been involved with developing different standards when measuring samples such as in the previous talks. While it would be great to simple take some relatively easy to get sample and test for different components that may be associated with a health problem, this will only work if the tests can give reliable results. Right now this is difficult to do, one example Dr Mays described was testing for the amount of the protein troponin as a measure of a damage after a heart attack. Three kits made by different manufacturers gave results in a range over 20 fold difference. These issues with reproducibility are also important for the consistency of results from different labs that are sharing data to identify these kinds of markers. I think this last speaker was the most interesting one of the panel. While the others gave some insight into different things we may be able to look for, the nature of the AAAS audience meant they didn’t go into enough detail to really judge how useful these techniques are. On the other hand Dr. May gave some idea of where the limitations of this kind of technology are right now. As the moderator said in her introduction, the title of the panel was meant to refer to how we may have to step back first in order to make sure we’re using the right tools.

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