Genetics labs 'face closure': Patients put at risk by NHS funding changes, therapy pioneer warns

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The Independent Online
THE National Health Service will fail people at risk of genetic diseases because of changes in funding, one of the country's leading geneticists warned yesterday.

Regional genetics laboratories, which carry out DNA analysis for affected patients, are facing imminent closure because no one is willing to pay for them, according to Professor Robert Williamson, a pioneer of gene therapy to cure cystic fibrosis.

Speaking at a meeting in London organised by the BioIndustry Association, Professor Williamson warned that just as genetic services were moving out of the research laboratory into the clinics, patients might never see the benefit because of the new structure of the NHS.

Professor Williamson's remarks were prompted by an earlier speech to the meeting by Tom Sackville, junior health minister. Mr Sackville, who announced the composition of a new committee on the ethics of gene therapy, also praised the potential benefits that could follow from the 'complex and exciting area' where 'progress has been faster than anyone had thought'.

In outspoken terms, Professor Williamson said: 'It is cynical of ministers to discuss genetic services without noticing that the way the NHS is being funded will prevent genetic services being delivered.' The Medical Research Council and the NHS have been studying the best way of screening couples who are at risk of having children who would suffer from cystic fibrosis, the most common genetic disease in Britain.

Screening requires analysis of samples of DNA, the molecular messenger which carries the genes, and in Britain, that has previously been carried out in regional genetics laboratories. These now face closure, not only because regional health authorities are eventually to be disbanded but also because of the way in which the internal market works within the NHS.

The Department of Health refused to comment on the specific criticisms.