‘Astonishing level of ignorance’: Matt Hancock criticised for revealing results of his genetic test for diseases

Expert says health secretary caused himself ‘unnecessary anxiety’ and took up ‘valuable medical time’

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 20 March 2019 19:32 GMT
Matt Hancock reveals own genetic risk of getting common diseases: 'genomics might have saved my life'

Matt Hancock has faced criticism from experts after claiming a controversial genetic test for cancer could have saved his life.

The health secretary was accused of showing an “astonishing level of ignorance” about the use of such tests, which he said could change the way the NHS works.

Experts are largely sceptical about his demand to roll out genetic testing more widely, as they say it is premature and could place undue pressure on an already strained service.

Ahead of a speech at the Royal Society, the minister discussed his decision to take a commercially available genetic test to establish his risk of developing 16 conditions.

He revealed details of the results, and said he was “surprised and concerned” he was at an elevated risk of developing prostate cancer.

Writing in The Times, he said he was in the worst 10 per cent in the country for the disease, despite having no family history of it.

“I’ve always been a fan of technology. This technology may save my life,” he wrote.

However, his announcement was met with doubt by scientists, who questioned the validity of such tests, as well as the health secretary’s take on his own results.

Professor David Curtis, from University College London’s Genetics Institute, said Mr Hancock’s response was a perfect example of someone “massively misinterpreting” such tests, which are often inaccurate.

“As a result of his misunderstanding, he first suffered unnecessary anxiety and then took up valuable medical time,” said Prof Curtis.

“Now he is going to waste even more of the NHS’s scarce resources by booking a completely unnecessary appointment with his GP to discuss a course of action to address a problem which essentially does not exist.”

Apart from testing genes for a select few rare conditions, scientists still find it difficult to recognise the elements of people’s genomes that can predict the onset of disease.

Despite this, the health secretary revealed the test - taken with the support of University of Oxford experts - had told him his risk of prostate cancer before he was 75 was almost 15 per cent.

Professor Diana Eccles, a cancer geneticist at the University of Southampton, said this “sounds like a pretty modest risk”.

In his talk on Wednesday, Mr Hancock said while he was initially concerned about his results, he was now “absolutely delighted” by the potential power of genomics.

“I’ve already booked a blood test, and obviously I’ll be on alert as I get older,” he said.

“I’m going to make certain I don’t miss any screening appointments in the future.”

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He also emphasised the importance of leaving interpretation of tests to professionals, but Prof Curtis noted that even his pledge to attend future screenings was misguided.

“As a health secretary, he displays a quite astonishing level of ignorance about the NHS,” he said.

“There is no such thing as a screening appointment for prostate cancer. We don’t do them because they don’t work, they’re a waste of time and money, they cause unnecessary anxiety to patients.”

Beyond commercial tests, Mr Hancock underlined the potential role for genetic techniques as a “game-changer” in NHS cancer screening, a point welcomed by some observers.

“As the secretary of state’s speech powerfully illustrated, genomic medicine is set to revolutionise the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of many of the UK’s most devastating diseases," said Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director of the British Heart Foundation.

"Identifying someone’s genetic risk could lead to more personalised treatments that might stop a disease ever developing."

However, experts warn there are many hurdles that must be overcome before this is a reality.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said genetic testing should “never be taken lightly”, and would come with many ethical and practical concerns.

“Many things that will be picked up by genetic testing will be unimportant or of dubious value, and these could leave people unnecessarily confused and distressed,” she said.

“This will undoubtedly lead to an increased number of worried people wanting to visit their GP to discuss their borderline results, at a time when general practice is already struggling to cope with intense demand.”

Responding to the criticism, a Whitehall source said: “There’s never any progress that hasn’t been opposed by someone, somewhere."

"Genomics has the potential to transform our lives for the better – so it is vital we embrace the potential of this new technology for the benefit of all.”

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