DNA test for every baby

by JAMES CHAPMAN, Daily Mail

Every newborn baby could undergo DNA testing and have their genetic code stored in a nationwide data bank.

This is one of a series of measures

being considered by ministers, who said yesterday that genetic technology could bring about a huge change in healthcare.

They gave the green light to a massive increase in genetic tests on the NHS and gene therapy experiments.

But they said they will make it a crime to obtain someone's DNA without their consent. It is expected that parents would have to give their consent on behalf of babies.

As the law stands, anyone could take something such as a drinking glass from a public figure, analyse the genetic code in saliva left on it, and establish that person's chances of developing a range of illnesses.

That will become illegal, as will stealing items such as dental floss, which also carry traces of DNA, to establish paternity.

Tony Blair, who met 20 genetics experts yesterday to discuss the implications of their work, threw his weight behind the science, but pledged to proceed cautiously.

"It will make an enormous difference to the way we deliver healthcare," he said. "It will also raise a whole series of ethical issues. There are tremendous opportunities in it, but there are also some risks."

Health Secretary John Reid announced that £50million will be poured into genetic technology.

He said it has the potential to treat major killers such as cancer and heart disease more effectively and he wanted the NHS to 'lead the world' in its use.

The watchdog Human Genetics Commission is to be asked to investigate the ethics of screening all babies as a standard post-natal check.

It would be technically possible to sequence the genome, or genetic blueprint, of each new baby - providing them with a rundown of each and every one of their genes and their risk of developing certain diseases.

As they grow up, this would allow them to take preventative measures, adopt healthier lifestyles, and have treatments tailored to their needs.

However, presenting a White Paper on the subject to Parliament, Dr Reid said secret DNA testing to establish a person's infidelity or their likelihood of developing cancer would be banned.

"We will introduce legislation to make it an offence to test a person's DNA without their consent," he said.

The only exceptions would be in the medical treatment of someone whose consent was impossible to obtain, or for 'lawful use' by police and the courts.

Dr Reid also addressed fears of 'genetic apartheid', with people discriminated against by insurance companies or employers because of their susceptibility to disease.

He said the Government was considering a law to tackle this, but in the meantime had struck a deal with the insurance industry which would protect consumers until 2006.

And he approved an expansion of research into gene therapy, which aims to cure disease by replacing or 'knocking out' faulty genes.

Medical experts broadly welcomed the approach. But they expressed dismay that the White Paper said that in 'exceptional circumstances' the police would be allowed to access genetic information donated for medical research.

Dr Graeme Laurie, a medical law expert at the University of Edinburgh, said: "This is a rejection of the advice of the Human Genetics Commission, which was troubled by the possibility of individuals being deterred from coming forward to engage in the very valuable enterprise of research."

Dr Tom Shakespeare, director of Newcastle University's Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute, also warned of the dangers of 'over-hyping' the potential of genetic medicine.

He questioned whether it would ever fulfil 'the huge hopes and expectations of both researchers and scientists'.

"Early hype proved premature," he said. "Turning DNA research into genetic health benefits is much harder than anyone ever imagined."


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