Health secretary calls for roll-out of genetic disease testing

As reported by The Guardian, the health secretary has called for the NHS to roll out genetic testing across the health service

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is calling for genetic tests for the detection of ailments to be rolled out across the country.

He said, in a speech to the Royal Society yesterday, that tests for common cancers and heart diseases should be available across the NHS without delay.

He added that he recently took a commercial genetic test that showed he was at heightened risk of developing prostate cancer, and called for a national debate about the ethical issues associated with testing for diseases.

He said: “We must get predictive testing into the NHS as soon as we possibly can. I see it as a game-changer for cancer screening in the NHS and I’m determined that we harness this technology to save lives.”

The idea of rolling out genetic testing has garnered criticism, partly because the tests have largely been developed using genetic data from people of a white European background. As such, they are less accurate for people with ethnic backgrounds.

Prof David Curtis, a geneticist and psychiatrist at University College London, said: “You simply can’t have an NHS test that only works for white people. How can you contemplate this?”

Another concern is that these tests could lead to ‘genetic fatalism’, meaning that people could give up on any attempt to maintain a healthy lifestyle if they believe they are destined to develop certain diseases.

Hancock himself said that the discovery that he may be predisposed towards prostate cancer shocked him.

“I was surprised, and concerned,” he said. “But I discussed what it meant with the doctor and when I realised that dying from prostate cancer is highly preventable, if caught at an early stage and with regular checks, I felt hugely relieved. The truth is this test may have saved my life.”

However, Curtis responded to this by staring Hancock had misinterpreted his reasonably average risk.

“As a result of his misunderstanding, he first suffered unnecessary anxiety and then took up valuable medical time having to be counselled about the reality of the situation,” he said.

“Now he is going to waste even more of the NHS’s scarce resources by booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist.

“As a health secretary, he displays a quite astonishing level of ignorance about the NHS.”

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