BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The UK likely will make DNA theft a criminal offense, following a major report on safeguarding genetic privacy published last month by the government's advisory body, the Human Genetics Commission (HGC).

The report also recommends that paternity tests carried out by one parent without the consent of the other should be banned, and sets out guidelines on genetic testing and the use of genetic information in clinical and research contexts.

The publication follows a yearlong consultation with the public and various organizations, based on the HGC's discussion document, "Whose Hands on Your Genes," published in November 2000.

The HGC says there are a number of scenarios under which the law as it stands does not protect an individual's genetic privacy. They include obtaining a DNA analysis of a celebrity from a beer glass, for example, and then selling the information to a newspaper; de-encrypting anonymous genetic information from a research study for a wrongful purpose; obtaining a sample from a child to ascertain fatherhood; or an employer secretly taking a DNA sample from an employee.

Such breaches are of increasing public concern because of the ease with which genetic material can be obtained, and the increasing availability of companies offering genetic testing directly to the public, particularly from outside the UK.

That is part of the rub - the difficulty of enforcing legislation when the testing companies are abroad. The HGC wants it to be an offense for anyone in the UK to send a DNA sample abroad for testing without consent from the individual it came from.

Helena Kennedy, chair of the HGC, said, "These sorts of activities are a gross intrusion into another's privacy and there is no sufficient legal protection to prevent this at the moment. This is why we are recommending a criminal offense of obtaining or analyzing another person's genetic information for nonmedical purposes."

The HGC also considered issues relating to the use of genetic information in medical research and in particular the use and regulation of BioBank UK, a £45 million (US$65.8 million) project to create a national database of 500,000 DNA samples with associated clinical records, for studying the genetic bases of common diseases.

The report recommends that donors should have a guarantee backed by law that their sample will remain confidential. That would ban the police or any other agency from obtaining a search warrant to access the information.

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