The UK government unveiled its plans for genetics in the National Health Service (NHS) last week, in the form of a white paper entitled 'Our inheritance, our future - realising the potential of genetics in the NHS'. The document lays out new measures for strengthening existing genetics services, and for incorporating new genetic technology into other areas of healthcare. John Reid, the new Health Secretary, has also pledged £50 million additional funding for genetics over the next three years.
New initiatives outlined in the white paper include an investment of £18 million to upgrade clinical genetics services, and to provide more genetic counsellors, consultants and scientists. It paints a picture of 'personalised' healthcare in the future, in which an individual's genetic profile is used in diagnosing and treating common illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The document also revealed that the Human Genetics Commission (HGC), the government's advisory body on human genetics, will be asked to look at the issues surrounding the testing and storing of DNA samples from all newborn babies. Reid said: 'Increasing understanding of genetics will bring more accurate diagnosis, more personalised prediction of risk and more targeted and effective use of existing drugs'.
Of the remaining funds, £7 million is earmarked for introducing genetics technology into primary healthcare, and £5.5 million for gene therapy research - £2.5 million of which is specifically for cystic fibrosis. Funding is also being provided for training and educating health professionals, developing information technology resources to handle genetic data, and for projects aiming to address public confidence in genetic technology. The proposals were largely welcomed by scientists, although the Genetic Interest Group (GIG), which represents families affected by genetic conditions, called for more funds: '£50m is a drop in the ocean, but it's an important drop that can help provide the infrastructure that will allow the NHS to determine which people can benefit most from these new therapies' said Alistair Kent, director of GIG. Ethicist Tom Shakespeare questioned whether gene therapy or pharmacogenetics (treatments tailored to a person's genetic make-up) would ever fulfil their promise. 'Turning DNA research into genetic health benefits is much harder than anyone ever imagined' he warned.
In the final chapter, the paper announces plans to make testing a person's DNA without their consent a new criminal offence. Critics say the proposed legal safeguards to protect people undergoing medical genetic tests do not go far enough. 'We face a future of creeping discrimination unless steps are taken now' said Helen Wallace of pressure group GeneWatch UK. However, Helena Kennedy, chair of the HGC, said that the white paper signalled a major investment in genetics in the NHS, and added that 'the government has recognised the HGC's concerns that this investment might be squandered if people are worried about what use might be made of their sensitive genetic information'. The paper is available online at: http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_4006538