Julie Harris, PhD
Research focuses on the public health implications of emerging genomic technologies: Examining social, political, and contextual factors impacting translation and adoption of genomic information
It has been said that the most profound discovery of the 21st century will be our increased knowledge of human genetics. Our public health and medical systems are faced with new genomic screening modalities, our research infrastructure is making large scale investments in genetics research such as population based DNA biobanks, and the commercial sector is focused on the next generation of personalized medicine technologies. These technologies hold a great deal of promise for improving population health, but currently the field of public health genomics is being strongly driven by the need for discovery or T1 (i.e. translation of basic science to a genetic test) research. This has set up a potentially concerning trend in the field since discovery is surpassing evidence-based integration into the medical or public health system. As a result, we have very little evidence on whether, how, and why these technologies are impacting health outcomes or health disparities.
Julie’s research builds on the existing literature around the social consequences of genomics to examine how differing social contexts and forces impact the public health utility and adoption of genomic technologies. Data from her research suggests that dissemination of genomic risk information is heavily influenced by features of the familial context, and families able to adapt to social stressors are more likely to disseminate this information widely within their family. Julie’s current work expands from the familial level and looks at the role of more diverse social and political contexts. For example: Do direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns of breast cancer genetic testing influence genetic test adoption differently depending on an individual’s socioeconomic status? What is the role of government regulation and reimbursement on diffusion of personalized medicine technologies? Are there racial disparities in adoption of personalized medicine technologies for breast cancer? How have scientific conceptualizations of race and genomics informed present-day notions of the interplay between race and genomics?
Julie’s investigation of these questions uses a variety of qualitative and quantitative approaches and she collaborates with an interdisciplinary group of scientists and legal scholars at UCSF, UC Hastings, and Kaiser Division of Research. For example, in one pilot project, Julie is partnering with sociologists, epidemiologists, and environmental health scientists at Kaiser Division of Research in Oakland, CA. The goal of the project is to investigate how the association between knowledge of a family history of cancer and engaging in cancer prevention behaviors is modified by a person’s neighborhood context (i.e. variables such as neighborhood SES and availability of grocery stores). In order to answer this question, she will be examining data from Kaiser’s Research Program on Genes Environment and Health (RPGEH), which is a large-scale research study that is seeking to link genetic, environmental, and medical record data from the 400K participants. The goal of this particular pilot project is to use the results to create strategies that individuals and clinicians could use to increase the comprehension, adoption, and utilization of multifaceted genomic and environmental risk information.
Ultimately, the goal of Julie’s program of research is to identify effective health policies and interventions aimed at reducing the negative impact of genomic tools on population health disparities and to improve the utility of these tools for all communities.