Gene junction takes off at airport

January 31, 1997

High-flying passengers can now to gen up on genetics while waiting for a flight. Julia Hinde reports on the brainchild of a Manchester University lecturer

Nestled beside the Body Shop in Manchester Airport's bustling Terminal Two, a new concept in health education opens to the public next month.

Four years in the planning, the Gene Shop, the brainchild of a Manchester University lecturer, promises to provide the jetsetter with a curious alternative to duty free shopping.

The shop, a joint venture between Manchester geneticist Maurice Super and the centre for professional ethics at the University of Central Lancashire, is a non-commercial venture funded with European money. It will be jam-packed with genetic information, interactive displays and exhibitions.

Dr Super, whose vision of better public health information goes back to his days in southern Africa, promises something more ambitious than a museum. However, he stresses that the shop will not be offering genetic screening or counselling for the hapless traveller en route for distant shores.

As well as static displays, there will be leaflets on genes, chromosomes, genetic diseases and likely future advances, plus a staff of specialist clinicians, used to dealing with the public, to point the curious in the direction of further information and to provide answers to some general genetic questions.

The shop is being funded by a European Commission grant worth Ecu180,000 (Pounds 140,00o) over three years.

Dr Super adds that the clinicians will be in educating, not counselling, mode.

His vision is born of some 20 years working in the field of genes and genetic diseases. Having first come to Britain to research cystic fibrosis after encountering high levels of the disease among the Afrikaaner population in Namibia, Dr Super is convinced that there is a very real market for more information.

He says his department of clinical genetics at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital is regularly inundated with calls from the public seeking gene information, while a recent television phone-in on genes, to which Dr Super was invited to answer questions, brought in 5,000 calls.

"There is widespread interest in genetic discoveries, while at the same time nervousness about them and how genetic information and power may be abused," said the consultant.

"Opportunities for interested members of the public to increase their general knowledge about the issues surrounding human genetic disease are not easily available. The aim of this shop is to increase general understanding and to remove some of the hype surrounding genetics, to decrease the fear of a Brave New World."

Dr Super regularly encounters patients who are fascinated when he explains the role of genes and the effects that they may have on them and their families.

"A lot of the time when I do genetic diagnosing, assessing the risks and counselling, I see how interested people are," he explains. "But I am educating people in a captive position. They have to listen - they or their families have been affected. Most of the time they receive the information after the horse has bolted.

"I think we ought to be more proactive. Some people would be interested in knowing more earlier. I have always thought it important to talk to people before they are my patient."

He envisages a time when people are more aware of the risks of passing on or inducing genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or Down's syndrome.

"Pregnant women are often under pressure to have the tests," he said. "It's hard to say no. I want people to say they have thought about it before they say yes or no."

The decision to site the pioneering shop in the airport rather than in the high street, where it could be expected to attract more passing trade, is a result of the IRA bomb in Manchester town centre.

But Dr Super now believes it will be an ideal venue, with customers with time to kill before boarding a flight. Among the early displays will be a look at varying attitudes across Europe towards screening for genetic diseases.

"The Cypriots are very much in favour of screening," Dr Super said, explaining that a joint offensive by doctors and priests, urging people at risk to get tested prior to conception, had led to the eradication of the blood disease thalassaemia on the island.

He added: "We want people to come and browse. If at least a little gem of information is planted, then we have done something worthwhile."

The shop opens on February 25.

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