Call for debate on gene ethics

The imminent completion of a first draft of the human genome heralds benefits for only a minority of the world, a newly formed scientific watchdog has warned.

The Campaign Against Human Genetic Engineering, set up by concerned British experts, is pressing for a debate on the ethical implications of the project.

The campaign called last Wednesday for gene patents to be rescinded, a ban on gene screening for insurance or employment and an end to funding for technologies that might be used for human genetic engineering.

The international Human Genome Project and American firm Celera Genomics are both expected to announce the first drafts of the human genetic sequence in the next few weeks. This is being greeted as one of the most significant milestones in science, ultimately revolutionising health care.

Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics and a founder member of the campaign, said: "The sequencing of the human genome is a marvellous achievement but it is unlikely to help the majority of mankind and has the potential to damage large numbers of people."

He said that insights into the mechanisms of disease would probably be its lasting positive legacy but other spin-offs, such as gene therapy and tailor-made pharmaceutical products, would be unaffordable for most.

David King, editor of GenEthics, warned that gene screening could be used to discriminate against people with particular genes, such as those showing a propensity to certain diseases or susceptibility to particular chemicals.

"We're already beginning to see a system where people are scientifically graded according to their genes in insurance or by some adoption agencies," he said.

Agnes Fletcher, head of communications at the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, said this raised the prospect of a return to eugenics.

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