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UK babies may be genetically screened

Financial Times
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 said.

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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