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Scientist raises gene fears

London, March 3 (Reuters): One of Britain’s leading scientists spoke today of his fears of genetic discrimination if people are not prepared for the medical advances expected in the next two decades.

In a speech at a meeting on genetic testing, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK, said individual genome sequencing showing susceptibility for diseases could be common in 20 years.

Advances in genetics are expected to open up an era of personalised medicine and preventive treatments but they could also lead to discrimination by insurance companies and employers against people with genetic defects. “This issue is too important to be left to scientists and policy makers alone,” he told the meeting sponsored by the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of scientists.

“In the coming years, the public will be offered more and more opportunities to take genetic tests and peer into their genetic destinies, but legislation must keep pace with the technology and help shape a fair and equitable society.” Without proper public debate and controls, he fears people will be discriminated against because of their genetic make-up. “We need to be extremely careful how this technology is used to shape our society,” said Nurse, who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on cell division.

“We need to discuss what genetics can and can’t deliver and what sort of society we want as a result.”

Nurse added that American scientist Craig Venter is already offering wealthy people the opportunity to buy a map of all their genes for what he referred to as a staggering $710,000.

But he anticipates a day in the not very distant future when sequencing an individual’s genome will become routine.

Members of parliament, scientists, policy makers and the public are attending the one-day conference about genetic testing and sequencing.

The Royal Society said it set up the meeting to ensure that the opinions of the public are considered when important decisions on genetic testing are made. Recommendations from the conference will be presented to the government.

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