£50m boost for genetics 'too small'

June 27, 2003

Academics reacted with disappointment this week to the discovery that the long-awaited genetics white paper provided only a "small" boost for research.

The white paper, published on Tuesday by the Department of Health, promised an extra £50 million to develop genetics knowledge, skills and provision in the National Health Service.

Of this, up to £11.5 million will be set aside for new research into pharmacogenetics, genetics-based health services and gene therapy.

But some scientists claimed the money for research would not make enough of an impact.

Steve Hughes, co-director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Centre for Genomics in Society at the University of Exeter, said: "This is a rather small amount of money. There is no huge cash injection for any area of research."

Steven Russell, a research scientist at the University of Cambridge, pointed out that the government's provision of £4 million for pharmacogenetics - widely considered a crucial area - could be exhausted in funding just one large research programme. "There needs to be a large increase in basic research if we are to effectively mine the human genome and use it to explore disease," he said.

But Sandy Raeburn, professor of clinical genetics at the University of Nottingham, said: "I'm retiring in three days and I wish I weren't. Over the 30 years I've been a clinical geneticist the new specialty has been building up and up with minimal funding. This is a big step forward."

Many feel the white paper has fallen short of developing an agenda for the public understanding of genetics.

John Burn, professor of clinical genetics at Newcastle University, said there was an urgent need for major investment in better education about genetics to counter the "silly stories" in the media.

The paper outlines moves to alleviate ethical concerns, including a pledge to introduce legislation that will make it an offence to test a person's DNA without their consent.

But some academics are concerned about its call for consideration of the case for screening all babies at birth and storing information about their genetic profiles.

Dr Russell said: "That's putting the cart before the horse without a firm framework to prevent discrimination."

Other announcements include:

  • Funding for 50 new genetics counsellors and 90 technicians for genetics laboratories. Up to £18 million will be spent on improving NHS genetics laboratory facilities
  • Setting up an NHS genetics education and development centre to educate healthcare staff. This is in addition to the £15 million assigned in 2001 for six new genetics knowledge parks.

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