June 25, 2003
UK Government Proposes Genetic Screening Of All Newborns

The British government is considering the possibility of collecting DNA samples from all newborn babies born in Britain.

All babies born in Britain could have their DNA stored in a national databank for their future medical treatment as part of a 50m genetics initiative published yesterday.

At this point the proposal has been made only to refer the matter to a commission to study the idea and make a report in a year and a half.

Asking the Human Genetics Commission to consider the case for screening babies at birth, and storing their genetic profiles, to provide doctors with the knowledge to individually tailor their healthcare - and to report by the end of 2004.

The British government is obviously thinking in terms of having genetic profiles as standard information that every doctor will have on every patient. It makes perfect sense for doctors to have such detailed information. Early testing will identify genetic metabolic disorders that must be treated from a very early stage. They will also identify risk factors for future diseases and provide guidance for preventive measures for those at special risk. Plus, eventually most drugs will have identified for them specific genetic profiles which contraindicate their use or which indicate specific dosing regimens. From a medical standpoint genetic profiles will become so powerful that to not routinely use them will eventually come to be seen as malpractice.

The British government, as operators of a national health care system, see the collection of genetic data by the government as a logical step. The national health care system will greatly benefit and patients will benefit. From purely a medical effectiveness standpoint the decision seems a no-brainer for them. Plus, the database of genetic profiles, cross-referenced with health and other records would provide a bonanza of information for medical researchers. Absent a large public outcry I expect the British will implement their proposal. If there is too much political opposition to this proposal in the short term that will probably only delay its eventual implementaiton. As more desireable medical uses of genetic profiles are discovered the British public will gradually become more supportive of the idea that all doctors should have genetic informatoin available on every patient.

As part of a set of proposals on genetics-related issues the British government also is proposing the outlawing of secret collection of DNA without consent.

The new law of DNA theft is intended to stop people from secretly collecting genetic material from "dental floss in dustbins" or from hair on a comb. It will protect celebrities and those involved in unwelcome paternity tests.

Alistair Kent, director of the Genetic Interest Group, raises an obvious and reasonable objection to this proposal:

"While this may be necessary to protect celebrities from prying newspapers, criminalising desperate fathers trying to prove their paternity may not be the best approach."

In the long run genetic privacy will be impossible to protect. Once cheap compact DNA sequencing machines built using nanopore technology become widely available (my guess is in 10 to 20 years) it will become too easy for a single person to get a DNA sample and test it without any help.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 June 25 02:49 AM  Biotech Society

Bob said at June 25, 2003 5:48 PM:

Frankly, I think they would do more benefit by collecting DNA samples from folks who won't be around in 10 or 20 years.

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