Ethics of gene data adverts challenged

March 21, 2003

A group of European academics has spoken out against biotechnology companies that advertise genetic tests on the internet, offering web surfers the chance to check paternity of children and their predisposition to conditions, such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies has released a formal statement saying that the "mass marketing of genetic tests raises several serious problems in ethical, social and legal terms, which (it) considers to require urgent attention".

It adds: "The information currently being offered is likely to be misleading and incomplete, particularly in view of the limited level of predictability of diseases linked to test results."

The group, an independent body advising the European Commission on ethical aspects of science and new technologies, is also concerned about the pooling of genetic test results in databases, which could be exploited commercially and "used to discriminate against some groups of persons".

Anne McLaren, a research associate at the Wellcome Cancer Research Campaign Institute at Cambridge University, and Peter Whittaker, head of biology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, also signed the statement, which warns that advertising is getting "increasingly aggressive and pervasive" in Europe.

It notes that in some countries "it can even be found in popular chain stores, service stations, highway restaurants and on television".

This carelessness also extends to the administration of these tests, the group says, notably over respecting existing data protection and consent regulations, particularly regarding paternity tests.

"Genetic tests can be harmful without proper advice and counselling," it says.

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