More MS news articles for Feb 2002

DNA needs to be protected by law

BMJ 2002;324:443 ( 23 February )
Zosia Kmietowicz, London

The United Kingdom's genetics watchdog has hinted that the only way to prevent someone getting hold of another person's genetic information without their knowing may be to make DNA theft a criminal offence.

Members of the Human Genetics Commission have said that when they present a report to ministers in April there is a "strong possibility" that one of their key recommendations will be to make it illegal for someone to obtain a sample of cells from another person and submit it for genetic testing without their consent.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, chairwoman of the commission, said: "People are leaving information around wherever they go. Once it is clear how readily one can pick up that information about people you realise how serious this matter is."

A piece of hair, a nail clipping, or a swab from a glass of beer could all be used to provide information without the person concerned ever knowing. Fathers or mothers in law concerned about the paternity of their children or grandchildren could quite easily obtain samples of cells without the child or its mother being told, said Baroness Kennedy.

At the moment all UK testing companies have a voluntary code not to perform a test on a sample without the mother's consent, she added. But that does not prevent people sending samples abroadhence the need for protection, probably by the creation of a new law.

The commission is also looking at how genetic information obtained by the police and through research should be stored and used. Professor Alexander McCall Smith, professor of medical law at Edinburgh University and vice chairman of the commission, said that another important consideration was to ensure that genetic information collected for research purposes was "absolutely watertight in terms of security."

There is a real sense of "genetic solidarity" among the public, said Baroness Kennedy, and people are keen to take part in research "as long as they feel it is for the general wellbeing of society and that there are adequate protections." She said that people want "the reassurance that their goodwill is respected and they will not be putting themselves at risk of exploitation. Our challenge is to build on that goodwill without allowing people to have their trust betrayed."

© BMJ 2002