LONDON - The UK has become the first country in the world to allow the commercial use of genetic testing, giving insurance companies the go-ahead to use test results in the assessment of life insurance applications.

This follows a recommendation from a government advisory body, the Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC), that the genetic test used to identify individuals who will develop Huntington's chorea is relevant for life insurance.

The decision does not mean that individuals can be asked to have a genetic test for Huntington's before obtaining insurance, but where they have already been tested, insurance companies are entitled to ask for the information.

John Durant, chairman of GAIC, said, "The decision will mean that those with a negative test result will not be asked to pay more for life insurance because of their family history of Huntington's disease."

The government stressed that the decision relates to Huntington's disease only and "does not pre-empt the broader public debate of all the issues around the use of genetic data and test results."

In December 1998, the government rejected the advice of its Human Genetics Advisory Commission that there should be a moratorium on the use of genetic tests by insurance companies. Instead, in April 1999 it set up GAIC to investigate the reliability and relevance of specific genetic tests. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) trade organization has agreed not to use test results when GAIC decides that the evidence for their reliability and relevance is inadequate. In the absence of a formal government policy, some insurance companies have been requesting genetic test results from people applying for insurance. The ABI said that in practice, nothing would change, but the decision formalizes the code of practice agreed to by the industry three years ago.

Durant said, "The two tests for the Huntington's gene are reliable and an abnormal result is associated with significant clinical effects and with an increased probability of a claim on a life insurance policy."

The ABI has applied to use the results of other tests it believes are reliable - for familial adenomatous polyposis, myotonic dystrophy, the early-onset form of Alzheimer's disease, multiple endocrine neoplasis, hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy Type I and hereditary (single-gene) breast cancers. If GAIC decides the evidence on reliability and relevance of any test is insufficient to justify its use, the ABI has agreed to stop using them and retrospectively reassess affected individual insurance premiums.

The government has referred concerns about the potential for unfair discrimination and the implications of the use of genetic testing in insurance and employment to the recently established Human Genetics Commission for review. The commission will launch a public consultation exercise next month on the storage, protection and use of genetic information, which will include the use of genetic data for insurance purposes.

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