babies may be genetically screened
June 24, 2003
Every child born in the UK could be genetically screened and the
data stored to plan their future healthcare under government proposals
for a massive expansion of genetic testing.
John Reid, the new Secretary of State for Health, said the UK was
on the threshold of a revolution in healthcare. "Increasing
understanding of genetics will bring more accurate diagnosis, more
personalised prediction of risk, new gene-based drugs and therapies
and better targeted prevention and treatment," he said.
The controversial proposal for testing newborn babies was announced
in a White Paper that promised £50m to expand the ability
of the NHS to cope with the rapid advance in genetic testing. It
is likely to be studied by the Human Genetics Commission, the government
advisory group, as well as the National Screening Committee before
firm proposals are made on what diseases would be tested for.
Dr Reid promised to make Down's syndrome testing available to every
pregnant woman, not just those over 37, by the end of 2005. He also
unveiled plans to fund more research into genetic diseases such
as cystic fibrosis and cancer and set up facilities to make gene
therapy treatments for the NHS.
Up to £18m will be injected into upgrading the NHS genetics
laboratory facilities in England. Other funds would be used to bring
genetics into mainstream medicine.
The proposals were welcomed by medical researchers, but opponents
of genetic testing said they raised the prospect of a world where
imperfection was illegal and a "genetic underclass" was
unable to obtain health insurance, jobs and mortgages.
Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, which funded the
UK contribution to the Human Genome Project, said effort was crucial
if Britain was to exploit the genome "We are delighted that
the government is making such a large financial commitment to translating
human genome information into real health care benefits. This effort
complements our own continuing investment in genome research and
in projects like the UK Biobank, which are of crucial importance
if we are to exploit this knowledge for the public good," he
Josephine Quintavalle of ProLife Alliance said the plans amounted
to a blueprint for weeding out physical imperfection. "We have
to be very careful. We don't have enough money to treat all the
diseases we know about, so who is going to get it? Inevitably it
will be the healthy child."
The TUC called for safeguards to stop test results falling into
the wrong hands. "Some employers might be tempted to use DNA
records as a recruitment tool, and rule out employing any candidates
whose profiles didn't make the grade."
Dr Reid admitted there were "very real ethical and social
concerns" surrounding genetic advances but pledged safeguards
. He promised to make it a criminal offence to test a person's DNA
without their consent. In addition to an existing moratorium onthe
use of genetic test results by insurance companies, he said the
government would consult with experts on whether widespread testing
would lead to discrimination.
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