Uncertain futures and unsolicited findings in pediatric genomic sequencing: guidelines for return of results in cases of developmental delay

Candice Cornelis*, Wybo Dondorp, Ineke Bolt, Guido de Wert, Marieke van Summeren, Eva Brilstra, Nine Knoers, Annelien L. Bredenoord

*Corresponding author for this work

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Massively parallel sequencing techniques, such as whole exome sequencing (WES) and whole genome sequencing (WGS), may reveal unsolicited findings (UFs) unrelated to the diagnostic aim. Such techniques are frequently used for diagnostic purposes in pediatric cases of developmental delay (DD). Yet policy guidelines for informed consent and return of UFs are not well equipped to address specific moral challenges that may arise in these children’s situations. 


In previous empirical studies conducted by our research group, we found that it is sometimes uncertain how children with a DD will develop and whether they could come to possess capacities for autonomous decision-making in the future. Parents sometimes felt this brought them into a Catch-22 like situation when confronted with choices about UFs before undergoing WES in trio-analysis (both the parents’ and child’s DNA are sequenced). An important reason for choosing to consent to WES was to gain more insight into how their child might develop. However, to make responsible choices about receiving or declining knowledge of UFs, some idea of their child’s future development of autonomous capacities is needed. This undesirable Catch-22 situation was created by the specific policy configuration in which parents were required to make choices about UFs before being sequencing (trio-analysis). We argue that this finding is relevant for reconfiguring current policies for return of UFs for WES/WGS and propose guidelines that encompass two features. First, the informed consent process ought to be staged. Second, differing guidelines are required for withholding/disclosing a UF in cases of DD appropriate to the level of confidence there is about the child’s future developmental of autonomous capacities. 


When combined with a dynamic consent procedure, these two features of our guidelines could help overcome significant moral challenges that present themselves in the situations of children undergoing genomic sequencing for clarifying a DD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number98
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

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