£50m boost for gene therapy

A £50 million plan for the NHS to exploit future advances in genetic science was unveiled today by the Government.

Health Secretary John Reid presented to Parliament a new White Paper on the potential use of genetics by the NHS.

He set out plans to invest £50 million over three years to increase the capacity of genetic laboratories and to find ways to incorporate new advances into everyday health care.

He said the Human Genetics Commission would be asked to consider the idea of screening babies at birth and storing their genetic profile for future use.

The Government also plans to introduce new laws to make it an offence to test a person's DNA without their consent.

And it will ask experts to consider whether people could be unfairly discriminated against because of their genetic make-up and how to tackle this problem.

Mr Reid said in the future, the NHS would be able to predict and prevent ill health based on someone's genes.

Gene therapy offers hope to people with inherited conditions such as cystic fibrosis and works by replacing "defective" genes with healthy copies.

Genetic science would also lead to better use of existing drugs and the development of new therapies, he said. It could also lead to new treatments for common conditions such as cancer and coronary heart disease.

Mr Reid told the House of Commons: "We are standing on the threshold of a revolution in healthcare. By working together, by building on our strengths, by making the necessary investment and careful preparations now, I believe that genetics can deliver real and lasting benefits in health and healthcare for all of us."

But some experts have warned that as genetic testing becomes more widespread, it could lead to a 'genetic underclass'.

They fear that it could be used by insurers and employers to discriminate against those likely to fall ill.

The new investment will fund 50 new genetic counselling posts over five years. It will also fund up to 90 new trainee posts in laboratory genetics and 10 full-time trainer jobs.

Sir George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said: "Genetic research has opened up the possibility of faster and more accurate diagnosis, and improved prediction of a person's risk of developing a disease, as well as new treatments.

"However there continues to be a pressing need for further research in areas such as gene therapy if these possibilities are to be realised."

Shadow health secretary Liam Fox welcomed the expansion of genetic services and said the Tories backed many of the specific proposals, such as those on DNA theft.

But he warned: "We mustn't overhype what genetics can do, especially in the short and medium terms. The technologies are emerging, in a very early stage, and the full potential is not yet known."

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