Clinical Research and Leadership Professor Shawneequa Callier, J.D., M.A., weighs in on the implications of human genome research
In the summer of 1996, the scientific community was stirring with the news of the birth of Dolly the sheep — the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Shawneequa Callier was still a high school student in Queens, N.Y., at the time, but she was already captivated by the ethical concerns that arose from this breakthrough.
During her freshman year at Princeton University, Callier enrolled in her first bioethics course. It was taught by renowned political scientist and philosopher Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., who now serves as chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and president of the University of Pennsylvania. “My most vivid memory of any college professor is of Dr. Gutmann,” recalls Callier. “She eloquently presented us with case studies and thought experiments that trained us to think about transparency, accountability, and ethical decision making. I continue to admire her as an instructor and thought leader.”
Shawneequa Callier, J.D., M.A., assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Research and Leadership at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), has since dedicated herself to the study of the ethical, legal, and social implications of human genome research. She says she “fell in love with the field” as a graduate student interning at the World Health Organization’s Human Genetics Programme in Geneva (before that, Callier studied bioethics at Monash University in Australia), where she had the opportunity to review international guidelines related to genetic research and the ethical conduct of such research.
After stops at Georgetown University Law Center and the Case Western Reserve University Center for Genetic Research Ethics and Law, Callier joined the SMHS faculty in the spring of 2011. She currently teaches online health sciences courses in bioethics and health care law. Callier, a self-proclaimed fan of social media, enjoys teaching online. She utilizes discussion boards and reflection journals, and says that “unlike in a classroom where five to 10 students might speak all the time, I know what’s going on in every single student’s head.”
She recently built a wiki (a website that enables users to add or change content) for her bioethics class and asked her students, many of whom are adult professionals already working in health sciences, to contribute to a list of issues they would want a patient to understand before donating DNA to a biobank. “Teaching in a classroom is great too,” Callier says, “but these students are leading very busy lives. They want to get a degree while they’re also being leaders at the office, and this is a great way to allow that.”
When she’s not teaching, Callier is immersed in her research. As a co-investigator on a grant funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, she addresses the ethical, legal, and social issues raised in personalized medicine within the context of comparative effectiveness research (CER). “There is a potential conflict between CER and personalized medicine,” Callier explains. “CER aims to identify the most efficient and effective strategies for treating the average patient suffering from a particular disease, but personalized medicine focuses on medical interventions tailored to fit each person’s unique genetic profile. Ideally, the two will evolve together so that providers can place patients into subgroups and then pinpoint the most cost-efficient strategies for each person within those subgroups.” Two graduate students from GW’s School of Public Health and Health Services, Rachel Simpson and Monica Gonzalez, assist Callier with her research on this grant, as well as her work as one of three principal investigators evaluating providers’ use of race and genetics in medical care.
According to Joseph Bocchino, Ed.D., M.B.A., senior associate dean for health sciences, Callier’s work is essential, given the important role that bioethics plays in how health care will be shaped and delivered in the future. “Dr. Callier’s contributions to SMHS will be particularly important as the school engages in more health outcomes and comparative effectiveness research,” Bocchino says. “Also, her passion for this field is now being transferred through her classroom to the next generation of health practitioners and researchers.”
Callier is deeply concerned about gaps in research that limit our understanding of genetic contributions to disease globally and therefore our understanding of the role of rare mutations domestically. This unease prompted her to co-author an article titled “Why personalized medicine will fail if we stay the course,” which was published in the November 2012 issue of the journal Personalized Medicine. Callier’s other recent publications include “GINA and preemployment criminal background checks,” which is a Hastings Center Report piece about the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, and a target article in The American Journal of Bioethics about whether universities should be allowed to facilitate educational DNA testing.
Currently, Callier is also collaborating with investigators at the National Human Genome Research Institute and at universities in Africa who share her interest in the just and equitable distribution of the benefits of genomic research. “I’m co-authoring a manuscript now with another Georgetown Law alumna who lives in Nigeria. We’re evaluating legal issues raised by genomic research in Nigeria and assessing the role of local laws and customs,” she says.
Callier sees herself evolving in the genetic research world, but can’t imagine ever leaving it. She is currently following the Maryland v. King Supreme Court case, which addresses whether the Fourth Amendment allows states the right to collect and analyze DNA from those who have been arrested and charged with serious crimes. “I’m collaborating with a colleague at the Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health on a paper about what it takes to qualify an expert witness on genetic testing,” Callier says. “Given the rapid advancement of genomic technology and the simultaneous controversies raised by the regulation and reliability of genetic testing services, debate about the utility, validity, and safety of gene-based, medical decision making will eventually find its way into the courtroom.”
When it comes to the regulation of genetic research, Callier says she is a fan of information, education, and dialogue. “I don’t think we can really know what the regulations should be until we have a conversation with the people who are going to be impacted by those regulations,” she says. “Experts who study the consequences of these technologies should interact with the people who are going to be affected by the technologies. We have to protect the informed consent and the health and safety of every single person we involve in research, but we want to have an idea of the community’s needs and we want to make sure we address them as we pursue research.”
Throughout it all, Callier remains grateful for the support of her colleagues at GW. “I’ve moved around quite a bit, and this is one of the first times where I feel like I’m in the right environment,” she says. “And that’s kind of cool.”