Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse spoke last week of the need for public debate on the issues surrounding genetic testing, as genome sequencing techniques continue to develop at a rapid pace. At a public meeting held at the Royal Society last Tuesday, the leading UK scientist spoke of possible future uses of new genetic technology, and warned of potential genetic discrimination by insurers and employers.
Nurse told the People's Science Summit on genetic testing that within 20 years, newborn children could be given 'genetic identity cards' at birth, which might eventually help predict susceptibility to common diseases. But he said that these advances could also lead to 'genetic apartheid', with some people discriminated against because of their genetic make-up. 'We need to be extremely careful how this technology is used to shape our society - this issue is too important to be left to scientists and policy makers alone' he said.
Dr Helen Wallace, of the pressure group Genewatch, told the BBC that the public was being 'misled' by promises that a map of their genome could offer certainty about their future health. 'Although gene tests can be very useful, there is no way you could use them to predict common diseases' she said. Nurse agrees that most genetic tests can only indicate whether or not there is an increased risk of an illness, and said that 'we need to discuss what genetics can and can't offer, and what sort of society we want as a result'.