Centre to tackle gene advances

March 14, 2003

An experiment to test journalists' and academics' sensitivity to alcohol was carried out in Exeter last week at the launch of a new centre for thinking about the problems posed by advances in genetics.

John Dupre, director of the Egenis Centre (the Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Genomics in Society), said that the test made a point about how genes work.

He said: "It looks at three genes that control how your body decomposes alcohol. If they are faulty, you will be able to drink only a tiny amount.

But the test is not intrusive because if you have this gene you already know about it, unless you have never touched alcohol."

Professor Dupre said that Egenis aimed to work with the medical and legal professions on issues such as genetic testing. "We are concerned with the way these very technical ideas are communicated. We even question how the word gene is used. As we find out more about how genes work and how they vary, it turns out to be very complex to say where genes start and end. But the language has filtered down into general use and people find it convenient."

Egenis will also be looking at stem cells, the human cells from which the full range of human organs can be formed. There has been a debate about their use for reproduction and for producing body parts for surgery.

Professor Dupre said that the distinction was artificial and more legal than scientific.

"We say that it is fine for people to have this technology for therapeutic use but not to use it to reproduce in a novel way," he said.

Although genes were often said to determine human health, there were many that only predisposed people to disease, Professor Dupre said.

"The Factor V Leiden gene predisposes people to deep-vein thrombosis. But so does taking the contraceptive pill. Add them together and you are 30 times more likely to get DVT. We aim to understand how medical practice can deal with this knowledge."

Egenis will also work on whether employers and insurance companies should have access to genetic data on employees and policy-holders, and on the risks of discrimination that the availability of genetic tests poses.

Egenis is funded with £2.5 million over five years and is one of three genomics centres being set up by the ESRC.

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