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23andMe – is DNA screening ethical?

Say Communications reflects on the ethical side of DNA screening.
With NHS England launching a new programme to test innovative ways of diagnosing cancer more quickly at over 60 sites across the country, you wonder if genetic testing is the key to detecting cancers, so prevention and treatment can be looked at as early as possible. With poor diagnosis rates and a lifestyle full of stress, healthcare is becoming an increasing concern for most of us. Having the power to prevent a disorder from developing and nipping it in the bud, can be lifesaving.
23andMe, a personalised DNA service providing information and tools for individuals to learn about and explore their DNA, may be a solution. The service raises questions on whether it is ethically correct for new parents to collect information on their unborn child, or whether such information is beneficial in the long run.
The screening offers many benefits to those who wish to know if they are at risk of breast cancer, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell, to name a few. With personalised medicine high on the agenda, knowing that you are susceptible to a disease would mean swift diagnosis, undertaking preventative measures and having a targeted treatment plan. Having your DNA sequence also provides a sense of relief and helps in making decisions about a person’s healthcare. In addition, for couples planning to start a family, knowing whether their baby will be healthy or not will allow them to make a decision as to whether they would want the pregnancy to proceed. Newborn screening can identify genetic disorders early in life so treatment can be started as early as possible.
However, do parents have the right to obtain such information without the permission of their unborn children? Oxford University genetics professor Dagan Wells argues that it’s a case of ‘imposing this information on the child at a time when they have no say about whether they would ever want it.’ While one can understand the issue of privacy, for a parent the responsibility of bringing another life into the world is huge. As Anne Wojcicki founder of 23andMe says, ‘forewarned is forearmed.’ She was able to find out that her son was lactose intolerant. Small discoveries like this could save precious time and prevent the agony of not knowing. But that’s not the only reason for why I believe DNA sequencing should be considered by everyone. At a time where research requires data to find the cure for diseases, sequencing can help find answers. On average, a customer of 23andMe who consents to research contributes to over 230 studies. That for me is reason enough to have my DNA sequenced

22nd April 2015



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