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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
Concern over genetic test revolution
Genetic test, bbc
Genetic tests raise social, ethical and legal concerns

Genetic tests for the likes of obesity and skin complaints could soon be available over the counter, BBC News Online has learnt.

Private health practitioners are already giving diet and lifestyle advice based on knowledge of an individual's genetic make-up.

The genetic tests, made by a UK company, Sciona, target a variety of genes involved in the breakdown of certain foodstuffs, chemicals and alcohol.

[People] used to say 'Grandma tells you to eat your greens', but we tell you WHY you should eat your greens

Dr Rosalynn Gill-Garrison, Sciona
More tests are planned, for genes linked with obesity, cardiovascular disease and skin problems.

It comes as the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) considers how to regulate genetic testing in the UK.

The body will report to ministers by the end of the year following a public consultation which ended this month.

Private practice

Sciona, based in Havant, Hampshire, makes seven genetic tests which it is selling through a network of private GPs and nutritionists.

The tests are for specific genetic variations, or polymorphisms, found within human DNA.

Sciona's chief technical officer, Dr Rosalynn Gill-Garrison, says the tests give practical information about diet and lifestyle, tailored to an individual's genetic profile.

"[People] used to say 'Grandma tells you to eat your greens', but we tell you why you should eat your greens," she told BBC News Online.

The tests screen for genetic polymorphisms linked with the metabolism of certain foods, chemicals and alcohol.

Depending on the results, someone might be told to cut down on the amount of alcohol they drink, eat vegetables high in anti-oxidants, such as broccoli or take vitamin supplements.

Consumer fears

Sciona is also planning to launch other genetic screens targeting weight management, poor skin and cardiovascular health.

Genetic screens for more serious conditions such as Alzheimer's and depression are already available over the internet in the US.

But not everybody is convinced of the worth of such tests. There is concern about the phenomenal pace of developments in genetic medicine.

The Consumers' Association says there are a huge number of issues that need to be addressed before such tests come on to the market.

"It is important that strict rules governing genetic technologies keep up with developments, such as the emergence of commercial testing services available in the high street," it says in its response to the HGC's consultation document.

Overweight man, bbc
Genetic tests for obesity are being developed
"Implications for consent, confidentiality, protection, storage and use of personal genetic information all need to be considered.

"Consumers need protection from misleading claims and from the potential misuse of their genetic information."

The genetic watchdog GeneWatch UK has "serious concerns" about genetic tests marketed via private health practitioners.

"A major failing of the current consultation is the proposed exclusion of genetic testing services provided through professional private medical practice from consideration, and the failure to identify the potential marketing of genetic tests via alternative health care practitioners," it says in its submission to the HGC.

Genetic tests should not be sold over the counter in high street stores, where proper counselling and medical advice cannot be given, it says.

It also wants a statutory body to be set up to assess the validity and utility of all genetic tests before they can be used.

Regulatory framework

Sciona says it has had an open dialogue with the HGC since the company was set up two years ago.

"We do want there to be a regulatory framework in place," says Dr Gill-Garrison.

"Sciona is very concerned about the possibility of cowboy organisations coming into the scenario. The risk for us is that we get painted with the same brush."

She says there is a difference between genetic tests for diseases with a very serious outcome such as Huntington's and something like a genetic screen for skin care.

"While we support the development of a regulatory framework, we think that that framework must recognise the spectrum of possible results for a genetic test from single gene diseases to eating more broccoli," she adds.

See also:

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10 Sep 02 | Leicester 2002
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