Healthy minds . . .

May 3, 1996

It seems that the United Kingdom is to get a Human Genetics Commission or something close to it. There are already many public and private organisations concerned with human genetics, but the sheer scope of the technology means that a single organisation whose remit is to deal with public concern about human genetics is bound to be welcome. It is a pity that it did not exist when the decision was taken to set up a DNA typing bank of possible crime suspects, just the sort of far-reaching decision that is now being taken on the nod because of the arrival of unregulated genetic technology.

It is easy to draw up a lengthy agenda for the putative commission, starting with a clutch of issues identified by the House of Commons science and technology committee whose work has led to its becoming a possibility.

The behaviour of insurance companies, which plan to use genetic data to get around the old principle of insurance as a risk-sharing mechanism for the population at large, is one topic that needs investigation. So is the use of genetic information by employers. Other developments the committee identifies as crucial are privacy and the patenting of genetic discoveries.

If it is to work, the genetics commission will need to be mainly a lay organisation, with access to the best scientific expertise - which, as the MPs have pointed out, is abundantly available in the UK. It will have to be able to communicate effectively with the general public, whose alarm about these technologies must be addressed, not regarded as an obstacle.

However, the commission should also bear in mind the MPs' advice that human genetics is a powerful tool for good, with the scope to attack many disabling diseases. In addition, the UK is developing one of the most significant groupings of biotechnology firms in the world: it will not be the commission's job to develop the British economy, but it should not obstruct it without good reason.

And perhaps there will be enough academics on the commission to remind it that Britain got to its leading position in human genetics because of the excellence of British university biology and medicine. Any possible future for human genetics in Britain - in terms of research and wealth generation - depends on maintaining the health of both.

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