Genetic Horoscopes

Successive governments have believed claims that one day everyone would have a complete reading of their genetic make-up and the diseases they will get will be predicted and prevented. Lifestyle advice, medication and perhaps the food you eat would be tailored to personalised risk predictions based on your genes and other information.

GeneWatch UK believes that genetic horoscopes are a dangerous myth. Our concerns are:

  • A bad strategy for health. Genes are poor predictors of common complex diseases in most people and targeting a minority of ‘genetically susceptible’ individuals is usually a poor health strategy. The health impacts of smoking, poor diets, poverty and pollution are not limited to individuals with ‘bad genes’ and require population-based preventive strategies (such as providing better sports facilities, healthier school meals and banning fast food ads to children).
  • The marketing of fear. The biotech and pharmaceutical industries have vested interests in promoting genetic tests to predict common diseases. It allows them both to expand the market for genetic tests and sell ‘preventive’ medicines to healthy people (‘pills for the healthy ill’). As well as being ineffective the costs could bankrupt the NHS and exacerbate health inequalities by diverting resources from the poor and sick to the ‘worried well’.
  • Undermining public health. The tobacco, food, chemical and nuclear industries also have vested interests in promoting the idea of ‘genetic susceptibility’ to cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Genetic tests can shift the blame from unhealthy products or pollution to the individual with ‘bad genes’. Promoting genetic testing wrongly implies that reducing pollution, smoking or obesity is important only for a minority of people.
  • Creating a genetic underclass. Individuals identified as ‘genetically susceptible’ are likely to be discriminated against on the grounds that they are inherently at higher risk. Insurers and employers are already interested in using genetic test results to decide premiums or who gets a job.
  • Undermining civil liberties. Genetic screening in the health service could lead to a national database of everybody’s DNA and perhaps to ‘genetic identity cards’. There would be significant potential for the erosion of privacy and civil liberties.
  • The patenting of life. Patents for genetic tests commonly include claims for gene sequences. These patents give the patent holder exclusive rights on future uses of the sequence for 20 years, including any treatments developed subsequently, which stifles potentially more beneficial genetic research and innovation and is morally objectionable.
  • Wasting resources and eroding trust. Promotion of widespread genetic testing by vested interests distorts the health research agenda, diverts resources from more valuable approaches and risks a loss of public trust in medical research.

GeneWatch would like to see:

  • Regulation of genetic testing, so that it is used only in situations where it is of benefit to health and ethically justified.
  • Legal safeguards to prevent genetic discrimination and erosion of privacy and civil rights.
  • Public involvement in setting the health research agenda and restrictions on commercial conflicts of interest (including an end to the patenting of genes).

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