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Health Insight May 2001: NHS should prepare for the genetics revolution


Making the first major speech on genetics by a Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn has announced new initiatives intended to ensure that the UK benefits from advances in genetic technology and treatment.

Legislation will, however, be brought forward to ban comprehensively all forms of human reproductive cloning. Mr Milburn also confirmed that the government would put a moratorium on the use of genetic tests by insurance companies – using legislation, if the Human Genetics Commission should recommend this to be necessary. He said, ‘Advances in genetics do raise difficult ethical questions. The terrible lesson of history is that science can be claimed for evil as well as for good. There are huge potential health gains, but until we address and allay public concerns, we will not gain public consent to realise the full benefits of genetic science.’

He called on the NHS to prepare for a ‘genetics revolution’ and announced a five-point plan worth £30m to improve genetic services. Britain will be the first country in Europe to offer free genetic testing to women with an inherited risk of breast cancer. The number of specialist consultants will increase from 77 to 140 by 2006; 300 more scientists and technicians will also be employed, along with over 150 genetic counsellors. Two new national laboratories for genetics will be established, and NHS genetics services will be reorganised into a single national network, so there will be equal access to services across the country.

The government will also establish a £10m Genetics Knowledge Challenge Fund to establish four genetics knowledge parks, bringing together expertise from universities, the NHS, and the private sector.

Nobel Prize winner James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, says that scientists should be allowed to alter the genes of sperm, eggs, and embryos, in order to rid society of genetic defects. He wants to see changes in the law to make such ‘germ-line gene therapy’ possible. The practice in humans is outlawed in the UK, USA and many other countries but Dr Watson says fears over the creation of designer babies are misplaced and that the potential benefits would far outweigh the risks.

Sources: Press releases (DoH), BBC Online, Independent 16th April

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