GeneWatch PR: UK Biobank based on false assumptions and a waste of public money, says GeneWatch

Wednesday 15th March 2006

GeneWatch UK today criticised the launch of the controversial and much delayed genetic research project, UK Biobank (1).

“UK Biobank is based on false assumptions about the role of genes in the major killer diseases of today. It will divert resources from more important studies and give spurious results. Increasing rates of conditions like obesity and asthma are a result of poor environments and lifestyle, not an outbreak of bad genes”, said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. “People considering donating their DNA should be aware that commercial companies are setting the research agenda and will be able to patent genes identified in the Biobank. Their focus will be on expensive drugs rather than action to prevent disease”.

GeneWatch UK's main concerns are that:

  • The chance of UK Biobank achieving its aims is very remote: prediction of future common illnesses by testing people's genes is unlikely to be a successful or cost-effective means of disease prevention. Everyone can benefit by quitting smoking or eating healthily, not just a ‘genetically susceptible' minority. Social and economic factors make much more difference to most people's health than their genetic make-up.
  • The scientific basis of UK Biobank is highly questionable: serious limitations in its design mean that spurious links between genes and diseases will be made. Most statistical links between genes and common diseases later turn out to be wrong, because multiple factors are involved (2). Environmental factors will be poorly measured in the Biobank because people will find it impossible to provide reliable information about their lifetime exposure to chemicals. This will bias the findings falsely towards genetic causation.
  • UK Biobank will not contribute directly to the development of new medicines but will allow commercial companies to go ‘gene fishing', patent gene sequences and gain excessive monopolies over future treatments.
  • There is a lack of legal safeguards to protect participants and others from future misuse of their genetic information: there are no laws to prevent genetic discrimination by insurers or employers and inadequate controls on access by the police or by commercial companies.

For further information contact:

Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK: 01298-871898 (office); 07903-311584 (mobile).

Notes for Editors:

  1. UK Biobank ( plans to collect DNA samples from half a million people aged between 40 and 69, to study the risk of genetic and environmental factors in common diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Funding from the Medical Research Council, Department of Health and Wellcome Trust was approved in April 2002, but the launch of the project has been repeatedly delayed. The £61.5 million currently allocated to the project covers only the setting up of the biobank.
  2. Different studies of the same gene in the same disease usually give conflicting results. For example, a 2002 study found that of 600 statistical links published between genes and diseases, only 6 had been confirmed by follow-up studies (Hirschorn et al., Genetics in Medicine, 4(2), 45-61).

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