Professor Maxwell Mehlman receives first NIH grant to study use of genetic science by the military

Maxwell Mehlman, Arthur E. Petersilge Professor of Law and Director of the Law-Medicine Center, has been awarded an 18-month, $117,000 grant by the National Institutes of Health to conduct the first study of the ethical, legal, and policy implications of the use of genetic science by the U.S. military.

By combining the largest existing collection of DNA samples—the Armed Forces Repository of Specimen Samples for the Identification of Remains—with access to the complete medical records of current and past members of the military, the military is in a position to create the most extensive “geno-phenobank” in the world. Such a database could yield an unprecedented body of data linking an individual’s DNA (“genotype”) to their risk for disease and to predictions about other capabilities and behaviors (“phenotype”). This information bank would be invaluable for general medical research, where it could identify genetic factors in disease and aid in the development of new treatments and preventions. The information also could be used for military purposes, such as enabling genetic tests to be developed that would aid the military in predicting disease risk and performance among members of the military, thereby assisting in decisions about enlistment, service assignment, specialization, training and promotion. The data might be employed to develop drugs and other biotechnologies to improve the health, physical fitness, and performance of combat and other military personnel. Genetic science also could be weaponized. It could be used, for example, to identify and exploit genetic weaknesses in adversaries.

Through his study, Mehlman aims to answer questions such as “Can the military use DNA collected for one purpose (such as to identify battle remains) for a different purpose (say, to conduct medical research) without the permission of the donors?” and “Would developing gene-based weapons violate treaties against biological warfare?”

“My hope is to come up with practical advice that helps the military make the best use of this new technology without violating ethical and legal norms,” Mehlman said.

Case Western Reserve’s Shannon French, Inamori Professor of Ethics and director of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, and Georgia L. Wiesner, associate professor of genetics and medicine, are among the experts who will sit on Mehlman’s project advisory committee.