GeneWatch PR: Nobel prizewinners, tobacco funding and the human genome

Nobel prizewinners implicated in tobacco industry infiltration of genomic medicine

False scientific claims led to secret plan to build DNA database in the NHS

GeneWatch UK today published a new history of the human genome, which exposes how a string of vested interests have promoted the idea that everyone should be given personal health predictions based on their genetic make-up (1). The briefing marks the 10th anniversary of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair's announcement of a completed draft of the human genome on 26th June 2000. GeneWatch's Director will take part in a debate about personal genomes at the Wellcome Collection on Thursday 24th June (2).

The history shows that:
  • Claims that human genome sequencing will be useful to predict who develops common diseases are false and originate from spurious findings published by tobacco-funded scientists. Nobel Prizewinner Sydney Brenner had secret meetings with British American Tobacco (BAT) in 1988 and 1990, in an attempt to secure funding for the Human Genome Project, and the Medical Research Council (MRC) jointly funded much of the spurious research. Leading scientists at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) also endorsed the false findings in journals and the press (3).
  • Other scientists who received tobacco industry research funding (for unrelated projects) included Nobel Prizewinner Harold Varmus - recently reappointed by President Obama to run the US National Cancer Institute - and Kari Stefansson, the President of pioneering gene test company DeCode Genetics.
  • The food and pharmaceutical industries have also promoted false claims that human genome sequencing will predict big killer diseases, in an effort to expand the market for healthcare products to large numbers of healthy people and to confuse people about the role of unhealthy processed foods in hypertension, diabetes and obesity.
  • False claims about health benefits from sequencing the genomes of whole populations led to the 12 billion pound decision by Tony Blair to centralise electronic medical records in the NHS.
  • Billions in taxpayers' money has been wasted in both Britain and the USA, and medical privacy has been jeopardised, in an attempt to create the vast databases of electronic medical records linked to DNA that will supposedly allow scientists to 'predict and prevent' disease. A massive expansion in the drug market is predicted if everyone is tested.
  • Systems are being developed in both Britain and the USA to allow the sequencing of stored blood samples, including millions of babies' blood spots taken for medical tests at birth, without consent. Google and its gene testing company 23andMe is seeking access to samples in both countries.

  • "The tentacles of the tobacco industry infiltrated top scientific institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, promoting a false story that smokers' risk of lung cancer and likelihood of smoking are both in their DNA. Leading scientists endorsed the hunt for genes that don't exist, creating a vast gravy train of funding for the human genome and a false message about cancer in the press", said GeneWatch UK's Director Dr Helen Wallace.

    "Big pharma later backed the plan to sequence everybody's genes because they wanted a massive expansion of the drug market to healthy people. They lobbied to build a massive database of electronic medical records and DNA within the NHS. The plan was backed by Tony Blair, creating a Brave New World of Big Brother government and commercial exploitation, subsidised by billions from the taxpayer", said Dr Wallace.

    Now Google and its gene test company 23andMe are lobbying both the UK and US Governments to use DNA and medical records for personalised marketing. The private healthcare and food industries are promoting a new vision of healthcare in which people will have their genomes sequenced in supermarkets and stored on mobile phones. Healthy people will be marketed bar-coded functional foods - such as cholesterol-lowering margarines and probiotic yoghurts - and other health tests, advice and treatments, which are claimed to be tailored to their genetic risks of future diseases. Sequencing everyone's DNA linked to their name and address stored in electronic medical records would also allow the Government to track every individual and identify their relatives.

    "Vested interests have fatally corrupted the medical research agenda. Companies want to data-mine your DNA and market healthy people misleading risk assessments and associated products: this is not medical research. Having your genome sequenced is not good for your health: the big risks for most diseases are not inside your genes but in the world outside", said Dr Wallace. "There have been continuing attempts to implement this healthcare scam on both sides of the Atlantic. The costs of testing and treating millions of healthy people would devastate the NHS in Britain and healthcare reform in the USA."

    GeneWatch called on the Coalition Government to abandon plans developed by the Blair/Brown Government to allow 'researchers' - including companies such as Google - to access people's electronic medical records and DNA without consent. The organisation also called for major reform of the research funding system to tackle vested interests.

    For further information contact: Dr Helen Wallace, Office: 01298-24300; Mobile: 07903-311584.

    Notes for Editors:
    (1) History of the Human Genome. GeneWatch UK Briefing. Available on:
    (3) Additional information is in the journal papers: Wallace HM (2009) Big tobacco and the human genome: driving the scientific bandwagon? Genomics, Society and Policy, 5(1), 1-54.
    Gundle, K.R., Dingel, M.J., Koenig, B.A. (2010) 'To prove this is the industry's best hope': big tobacco's support of research on the genetics of nicotine addiction. Addiction, 105, 974-983.

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