LONDON (Reuters Health) May 16 - Geneticists called for caution in the use of genetic tests, warning on Tuesday that mass screening for inherited diseases could cause more harm than good.
"Genetic tests could have great benefits in the early detection of disease tendencies, but there are detrimental effects too," said Dr. Segolene Ayme of The European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG).
She told the 10th International Congress of Human Genetics in Vienna, Austria, that companies and organizations should not offer mass screening and advised governments to set up bodies to ensure genetic tests are developed and used appropriately.
Genetic tests should only be given with the informed consent of the individual and if there is enough evidence that the tests will be beneficial. If the results of a test are positive and there is no treatment or preventive measure for the illness, the only consequences could be discrimination and distress.
"Saving money for a government or private health system is one criterion for using a genetic test, but certainly not the only one," Dr. Ayme added in a statement.
The ESHG, an international professional organization that promotes research in human and medical genetics, also urged countries to ensure that counseling is available for those who need it and that staff is properly trained to avoid errors.
Marcus Pembrey, of the Institute of Child Health at University College in London, said genetic tests should be treated like prescription medicines. "It would be a waste of time and money, and could cause side effects or anxiety if a perfectly healthy person was unnecessarily given a drug for, say, high blood pressure. It's just the same for genetic tests," he said.
"It is essential to work out who, if anyone, can benefit from a particular test before the test is made freely available," Pembrey added.
Genetic tests for the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, cystic fibrosis and other illnesses are already available.
The mapping of the human genome will greatly accelerate the discovery of disease-causing genes and lead to new tests and customized medicines.
The ESHG said the choice of genetic tests should not be left to companies. "It is not acceptable for companies and other organizations to offer genetic screening to everyone in the population," Dr. Ayme said.
Up to 4,000 geneticists,
molecular biologists and epidemiologists are attending the 5-day congress
that ends on Saturday.
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