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Can gene testing unlock life-saving medical treatments?

Can gene testing unlock life-saving medical treatments? 

The Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock has announced plans to allow people to pay for their DNA to be analysed by the NHS to help uncover new medical treatments (The Guardian). It is thought that genomics has the potential to transform healthcare and uncover life-saving treatments to benefit everyone in the future. This is not a scheme to research rare genetic diseases in people at very high risk but rather about getting data from the general population to help scientists better understand diseases and human genetics.

It is hoped this project will help predict a patient’s risk of developing various conditions for example cancer or Alzheimer’s and in turn data collected will allow researchers to develop treatments.

It was announced in 2018 that the NHS would become the first health service in the world to routinely offer genomic medicine. This way of working would take account of people’s genetic differences, rather than adopting “one-size-fits-all approach to the treatment and care of patients with a particular condition” (NHS England)

Although this at first glance appears a positive development in medical practice there have been a number of concerns raised, specifically the cost of this type of testing and whether allowing this to take place could lead to a two tier health system.

Further concerns have been raised as to how to ensure personal and sensitive data is used responsibly and the true value of this scheme has been questioned with the chairwoman of the British society for Genetic Medicine noting that there is a view that whole-genome sequencing will give a clear clinical prediction when in fact most of the time, it will not. It is thought much of the data collected is likely to be unimportant or of limited value. She warned: "You can use genetic code to confirm a clinical picture, but you can't use it to predict what will happen in the future very accurately."

Perhaps the biggest concern for our already overstretched healthcare system is whether people who decide to pay for such testing will be offered any kind of counselling to deal with the information they may receive about their current or future health and whether NHS services will be expected to deal with this extra workload. It seems a tall order to ask the NHS to add yet more patients to their ever growing lists.

There appear to be many positives to this type of research and medical practice, more knowledge about health conditions and the development of cures. However it will be important to ensure that people participating are fully aware of what they are agreeing to, the type of information they may discover about themselves and how this will be used by others as well as ensuring our health system can cope with any additional demand which may be placed on it as a result.


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