BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union will seek a clear path through the maze that genetic information now is presenting to health care professionals in Europe. European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin has convoked a conference of European experts in Brussels May 6-7 to assess the ethical, social and legal aspects of genetic testing.

For all the actual and potential merits of biotechnology for human health, genetic techniques "raise questions for each of us and for our society," Busquin said last week at a conference here on new genetic applications in health care. And while knowledge of the human genome will make it possible to personalize medicine as never before, it also carries the risk that the genetic information it provides on each citizen could be misused, he warned.

"If it is possible to identify the risks each individual faces, will this mean the end of the solidarity that has developed in Western society?" he asked. Will people be required to pay more for health insurance because their genetic makeup reveals already that they are more at risk than others, he wondered. And could this have the effect of blocking access to health care for those at risk, creating a two-level society, he mused.

"The crucial importance that genetic techniques have for our future demand a major debate on the subject, or we shall lose the confidence of citizens," the commissioner said.

At the same time, Busquin is spearheading EU efforts to define the need for standardized quality-assurance controls on genetic testing techniques and products available in Europe. But he said last week that he is driven principally by the desire "to ensure that science can progress without running into obstacles, while technology is developed and used in the best conditions for society as a whole."