European Journal of Human Genetics (2014) 22, 437–441; doi:10.1038/ejhg.2013.217; published online 25 September 2013

Incidental findings: the time is not yet ripe for a policy for biobanks

Jennifer Viberg1, Mats G Hansson1, Sophie Langenskiöld2 and Pär Segerdahl1

  1. 1Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
  2. 2Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Health Economics, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

Correspondence: J Viberg, Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences, Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, Uppsala University, Box 564, Uppsala SE-751 22, Sweden. E-mail: jennifer.viberg@crb.uu.se



Incidental findings (IFs) are acknowledged to be among the most important ethical issues to consider in biobank research. Genome-wide association studies and disease-specific genetic research might reveal information about individual participants that are not related to the research purpose, but may be relevant to those participants’ future health. In this article, we provide a synopsis of arguments for and against the disclosure of IFs in biobank research. We argue that arguments that do not distinguish between communications about pathogenic conditions and complex genetic risk for diseases fail, as preferences and decisions may be far more complex in the latter case. The principle of beneficence, for example, often supports the communication of incidentally discovered diseases, but if communication of risk is different, the beneficence of such communication is not equally evident. By conflating the latter form of communication with the former, the application of ethical principles to IFs in biobank research sometimes becomes too easy and frictionless. Current empirical surveys of people’s desire to be informed about IFs do not provide sufficient guidance because they rely on the same notion of risk communication as a form of communication about actual health and disease. Differently designed empirical research and more reflection on biobank research and genetic risk information is required before ethical principles can be applied to support the adoption of a reasonable and comprehensive policy for handling IFs.