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Ann Epidemiol. 2005 Oct;15(9):712-9.

Ethical issues associated with conducting genetic family studies of complex disease.

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Division of Nephrology/Department of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX 78229-3900, USA.



To examine subjects' recognition of the risks and ethical issues associated with enrollment in genetic family studies (GFS) and explore how this recognition affects their informed and voluntary participation.


A cross-sectional study design including both quantitative and qualitative data was employed. Structured interviews using the Contextual Assessment Approach Questionnaire (CAA-Q) were conducted with 246 Mexican American (MA) participants. To gain in-depth understanding of questionnaire responses, semi-structured interviews with 30 participants were conducted. All participants were interviewed before their enrollment in the Family Investigation of Nephropathy and Diabetes (FIND).


Subjects' average age was 56 years; 62% were females. Seventy-eight percent of participants were not formally educated beyond high school and 72% reported an annual household income of < or =20,000 dollars. Eighty-five percent agreed to provide researchers with information on relatives' ages, gender, and education. Sixty-five percent of participants were willing to provide identifiable information such as names, addresses, and phone numbers of relatives. Sixty-three percent of participants indicated that there were direct benefits (i.e., supporting research) to disclosing relatives' information. Seventy-six percent stated that there were no risks associated with participation in GFS (e.g., discrimination or confidentiality of genetic information) compared with 10% who said that there were such risks. While discussing potential risks, subjects did not consider these to influence their decision to participate.


Subjects enrolled in GFS did not recognize and tended to underestimate the social and cultural risks associated with their participation in GFS. If subjects do not fully comprehend the risks, this raises questions concerning their ability to provide informed consent and to voluntarily participate. We propose a subject-centered approach that views enrollment as an active process in which subjects and recruiters give and receive information on risks and ethical issues related to participation, which enhances protection of the rights and welfare of subjects participating in GFS.

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