"We are at a moment that is potentially as significant for humanity as the founding of the internet," British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, as he opened a new genetics laboratory. The lab is going to be screening heart patients and their families for the genes responsible for hereditary heart conditions.
Since these heart conditions frequently frequently remain undiagnosed until it's too late and sudden cardiac death sets in, the new lab's work will be important indeed. But Hunt wasn't talking about the lab. He was talking about something much bigger: “We could be the first country in the world where everyone’s genome is sequenced at birth and we use it to give people the most profoundly detailed diagnosis of what they need to do to stay healthy."
That's right — Hunt is suggesting Britain might carry DNA tests out routinely, on all newborn babies.
Is the Health Secretary's vision a noble one, one that could help thousands of people receive the diagnoses they need and the healthcare that could truly make a difference? Or is it the start of a scary new age in which designer babies and total government control will be the norm?
Jeremy Hunt believes that access to every individual's complete genome sequence will change the reality of British healthcare completely. Together with records of a person's medical history, pre-recorded DNA could open the door for a swift diagnosis and truly personalized treatment.
"Electronic health records, where you can understand people’s medical history over a number of years, can be combined with knowledge of their genetic make up," the Health Secretary told the British newspaper The Telegraph. He continued: “We have go a chance to be the first country in the world where that becomes a reality for the benefit of the general public."
Quite true. It could also, many fear, transform much more than medicine alone. The National Health Service (NHS) already practices genetic testing on a limited scale, for specific diseases like congenital heart disease, some hereditary conditions and specific types of cancer.
Offering the same genome sequencing these at-risk groups receive to every individual is generous and potentially life-saving. Genome sequencing costs a little over $800 (£500) at the moment and takes less than two weeks to complete, but the increased knowledge about a person's health and predispositions may also save the NHS a significant amount of money in the long run.
So far so good — but routinely testing every baby's DNA? If the genome sequencing would become compulsory, many people would find that completely unacceptable. Many concerns will pop up if Jeremy Hunt or others take steps to realize this plan.
Where and how would such information be stored, and would privacy be guaranteed? Would the data be available to interested parties outside of the NHS, such as law enforcement agencies or potential employers? Will the information the healthcare system has about a patient be available to a patient? If so, is there a chance that large numbers of people will live in constant fear of getting a disease they might never develop — when they could be enjoying their lives instead?
The idea Jeremy Hunt set out is rather grand. There are many potential benefits, and probably as many possible pitfalls. Whatever happens next, many people will be following this closely and some of those people will be happy they don't live in the United Kingdom.