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DNA Privacy Safeguards Crucial

March 20, 2000

Last week a British biotechnology firm called Genostic Pharma filed a patent application for its version of a cutting-edge medical device called a DNA chip. DNA chips are fabricated from human genes, rather than silicon as in the case of computer chips. They are essentially electronic sensors used in laboratories to analyze samples of a patient's DNA and spot abnormal gene fragments that could predispose the individual to disease.

DNA chips in themselves are not new. In Silicon Valley, Affymetrix Inc. has developed a chip that can detect whether people have genes predisposing them toward some types of cancer, thus giving them a potentially lifesaving chance to limit that risk through regular medical checkups and dietary changes.

Genostic Pharma's chip, however, is far more ambitious than its predecessors. The company says its chip can find variants of more than 2,500 genes and detect DNA markers for basic human traits like behavior and intelligence. It even claims the chip could help businesses "select applicants for employment." The arrival of this bold new device highlights the need to consider the ethical questions that accompany an impending era of widespread genetic testing.

Last month President Clinton banned federal agencies from using genes when selecting employees, and California is one of 23 states that have passed laws prohibiting genetic data from being used to discriminate in employment. Those laws, however, vary widely in their details and contain various loopholes.

That's why Congress and the private sector should work together to adopt national policies against discrimination based on genetic findings. They should make sure that businesses provide the same protections that President Clinton has given federal workers.

Guidance on gene discrimination will also be needed from the courts. In 1995 the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said that the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act should prohibit discrimination against people who carry in their genes a predisposition for a disease or disability. However, the extent of the commission's protection is limited, and the ruling is yet to be tested in court.

The best rationale for limiting the use of DNA chips is that leading gene experts say they are still far too primitive to precisely predict when, how or if a disease will afflict a given individual.

DNA chips already are helping doctors diagnose disease. Only leadership from Congress and the courts can ensure that the devices continue to benefit society rather than prove to be a major intrusion on privacy.

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